Four reasons to be hopeful this Earth Day

On the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental sentiment was brightly painted, proudly worn, and full of fierce optimism. Ask people about the planet now, and you’re likely to hear that our political will has faded, even though our problems are worse. We’re facing a climate crisis that’s global and accelerating. Grand political solutions are far from view. The problem itself – carbon pollution from fossil fuels – isn’t something we can “see” in a traditional sense. It’s also irreversible, and a failure to act could tank the biosphere in ways we can’t even imagine.

And yet, today, I’m hopeful.

Forty-four years after that first Earth Day, the issue of the present – climate change – remains profoundly divisive. But the same can no longer be said of climate solutions. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that people everywhere, of every political stripe, really do want to use less of the energy that warms our planet. And now, technology, economics, and science are aligning behind them. 

If the public and private sectors can work together and seize this moment, millions of Americans will soon have powerful new tools to reduce their energy consumption and dramatically curb our carbon emissions. We’re on the cusp of something big, and here are four reasons why.

1. Not everyone cares about carbon, but everyone cares about saving energy

On April 23, 1970, The New York Times wrote of the original Earth Day: “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans, and independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the executive and legislative branches of Government.”

Today, I’m not sure you could write the same sentence. But you could about energy efficiency. Why? Because our behavior as energy consumers is nearly universal. We don’t like waste. We don’t like throwing money out the window. We want to be good neighbors and good citizens. As it turns out, these things mean as much to people in red states as they do to people in blue states.

There’s plenty of data to prove the point, but it’s easier to look at our statehouses. Even at a time of profound political division, energy efficiency laws have quietly swept across more than half the union – from North Carolina, to Texas, to California. Everyone agrees we shouldn’t be wasting energy, and nearly everyone agrees we should be doing something about it.

2. Information unlocks behavioral change

In a play that was as brilliant as it was optimistic, the organizers behind Earth Day 1970 made education the core of their campaign – trusting that once Americans knew the issues, motivation would follow. It exploded. In only months, citizens and policymakers secured the strongest environmental protections America had ever seen. 

I believe passionately in that model of change: namely, that information, well timed and thoughtfully delivered, is what helps society make great environmental decisions. And today, we know more about the science and impact of sharing information than ever before.

If we followed through by rolling out behavioral energy efficiency programs like that nationwide, we could abate 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year – and put $2.2 billion back in consumers’ pockets

To take just one example: A few years ago, a clever study revealed that if you want people to save energy at home – whether green-living gurus, penny-pinchers, or otherwise – you won’t get far by simply telling them they’ll save money or help the planet if they use less energy. What does work, and phenomenally well, is showing them data that their neighbors are acting to save energy, too.

Now, creative thinkers are using normative comparison – that “keeping up with the Joneses” effect – to get more people to reduce their emissions, pay their taxes, recycle, you name it. And their success is proving that tough-sell behavioral changes aren’t just possible. They’re relatively easy, and people want to make them.

3. We can scale up solutions like never before

The technology behind the first Earth Day was a canvassing operation run with phones and paper mail. Now we have an Internet with global reach and a tech sector with unprecedented capacity to crunch data and figure out what works. So why can’t we use those tools to stage a massive, 21st-century teach-in on climate and energy, and get everyone on Earth to care? 

It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Let’s revisit that last example about saving energy and the “keeping up with the Joneses.” Right now, utilities are using cloud-based analytics to inform families how much energy they’re using compared to their neighbors. That tiny behavioral cue, given to millions, is yielding massive energy savings. If we followed through by rolling out behavioral energy efficiency programs like that nationwide, we could abate 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year – and put $2.2 billion back in consumers’ pockets.

Large-scale behavioral change wasn’t possible before because we didn’t have the technology. Now we do, and it changes the game.

4. If we can do good, we can do well

When the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts became law in the 1970s, businesses responded to new environmental standards by revamping their processes and inventing new, cleaner products. They made a lot of money doing it.

The same thing is happening today. American automakers are thriving as hybrids and plug-ins take the market by storm. Investments in clean energy and energy efficiency are creating jobs and pouring money back into local economies. Environmentally responsible companies are finding that adopting a “second bottom line” – that is, measuring their environmental performance as carefully as their financial performance – doesn’t hold them back. It propels them forward.

Going green is great business, it turns out. That wasn’t part of the message back in 1970, but maybe it should have been. 

Yes, Earth Day may remind us that the moment is dire, and the hour is late. But that knowledge cannot justify complacency, and it shouldn’t feed our cynicism. It can and must inspire us toward bold action, just as it did 44 years ago.

Business owners: Take on a second bottom line because it will strengthen the future of your company. Lawmakers: Ramp up efficiency programs because it will win you votes and grow our economy. Energy users: Look for ways to save, but also let your utilities and your leaders know that you want to, because it’s good for your pocketbook and good for the planet. And if that doesn’t move you: Embrace energy efficiency, because your neighbors are doing it, too.

Alex Laskey is president and founder of Opower, which provides cloud-based software for the utility industry. He was featured in Fortune’s “40 under 40,” has been a Technology Pioneer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and serves as a commissioner on the Alliance National Commission on Energy Efficiency Policy. Mr. Laskey also serves on the board of the Conservation Lands Foundation. This post originally appeared The Christian Science Monitor.

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