Climate Change: Changing Design, Not Minds

Symptom: Global climate change.

Disease: Design of economy & environment interaction.

Cure: Change the design (and don't sweat changing all the minds).

The day after the National Climate Assessment came out, so did our national misalignment. On May 7, 2014, on front pages across the U.S., the increasingly severe impacts of climate change were reported on as being here now, not somewhere in the future. Ironically, financial pages of many of those same papers, ran stories about the polar vortex -- intensified by climate change -- rendering a financial boon of investors in utilities which saw a nearly 23 percent quarterly jump in profits as a result.

In my local here in Portland, Ore., the paper took the irony one step further when it reported that a local solar panel startup -- trying to do good things in energy -- shuttered its manufacturing operation, unable to get off the ground.

So. Intensifying damages from climate change. But big profits to industries that provide energy with actions that accelerate climate change. And foreclosure on industries trying to mitigate against climate change? Huh.

Such clear misalignment exposes a design problem with how the economy and the environment interact. Before we ever thought any of this through, we set each of these up as individual systems with one succeeding at the expense of the other. We didn't think about the environmental impact when pursuing economic success. We thought about using fertilizer to increase yields, but didn't analyze the effect of fertilizers on our streams. The difference between then and now is that we have to consciously decide to recalibrate the system and then hardwire into the economy the costs our actions have on the environment in order to make sure we keep both healthy over time. Intellectually it's obvious (even to climate-doubters). But as a practical matter, it's hard. No matter how green you are, if you are reading this, energy was used to deliver it to you.

Like many complex social problems, climate has been reduced to a religious debate -- you must believe as I do! But actions speak louder than words, and it's pretty easy to see where our past actions have us headed. This isn't about one side yelling louder than the other; cave in does ≠ buy in, so let's move past good guys and bad guys. This about us. And we fix us with a "design change."

Milton Friedman would agree that proper changes in design will make the wrong people do the right thing. That rocks because we can see the economy-environment design change is already underway. It began as conscious individual choices, but it will ultimately become so broadly accepted as to displace the old design and become the norm. From profitable consumer goods that are made with less inputs to a breed of corporations called B Corps set up with both profit and social benefits in mind to socially-aware investors doing well by doing right, the design change is underway -- whether you like it or not.