Scared Green: Ideas for Tough-Love Climate Change Campaigns That Get Results

SXSW 2011 PepsiCo Plugged-In Stage Green Panel

The sustainability movement is stuck in a slump, a stall, a "trough," as moderator Scott Henderson of CauseShift called it on the PepsiCo Plugged-In Stage at SXSW yesterday. He wanted to give it a kick-start, he said. "How to we get past the idea that someone else is going to take care of it, and start taking action?"

Henderson asked his three panelist to present big ideas for how to inspire Americans into action--and these weren't your typical green-is-good approaches. Each presenter had some tough-love ideas for forcing people to make changes they might not want to make. They key? Pressure. Social media pressure, peer pressure by comparing consumption patterns, and pressure from the--gulp--government.

Share the Information: First up, James Slezak of Purpose.com outlined their ambitious plan to create a global mass movement that will aggregate millions of people to take a set of actions that includes clean energy. But first they have to battle awareness. Through their research about climate change, Slezak saw two major challenges:  1) people don't actually realize that what's powering their house is likely burning coal and 2) people didn't know that they could tell your energy provider they didn't want to use coal. "You'd think that people would do this," he said, even if they have to pay a premium. "But it's actually less than a half a percent, which is far below other green technologies like hybrid cars." A massive campaign that gave explicit instructions, making it seem like everyone else is doing it, could potentially solve this.

Publicize the Data: Robert Murray, director of social media for National Geographic, said the issues of sustainability are more nuanced:  The issues people care about differ regionally across the country, but at the real core of the environmental movement is motivation. But one factor is universal: money. "I'm saying we have to pay people," he said. Since behavior change takes time, people want to be rewarded for their investment. And the way he thinks they can motivate people is to make their energy consumption completely transparent--in other words, completely embarrassing the resource hogs. "With an online dashboard, you can compare what you're doing in context of your local community and within your country," he said, noting that competing with their neighbors and being publicly rewarded would particularly appeal to Americans.

Legislate the Options: Ann Mai Bertlesen of MAi Strategies says there's only one way to get people to back major causes, and that's with a stick. Yes, that's right, the government has to punish us. The government has become too timid in recent years, she noted, out of fear of being branded as socialist. "Let's legislate what we need to do," she said. "Let's legislate so you actually have to pay for your energy from an alternative source. We can outlaw carbon fuel by 2015." By way of example, she gave some actual examples. Like seatbelts, she said, where the government had to mandate that for any change to happen. You could also argue that the new MPG laws for automakers were the only way we'd ever see change in our American-made cars.

In a discussion following afterwards, Henderson asked the toughest follow up question: How could each idea be financially sustained? In the case of Murray's idea, for example, where do the incentives come from in order to pay those people who have a low water bill? "There's brands that are paying all the time that want to make a impact with individuals," said Murray. He wants to see powerful data visualizations, neighborhood by neighborhood, that would be sponsored by big business who would reap the rewards for exposure. Same with a large-scale social media campaign: It would need a big financial backer.

The big issue with Bertlesen's idea was the same for any kind of politically-motivated mandate: You'll have to have to get agreement from Democrats and Republicans, who all the panelists agreed would be hard-pressed to come up with any kind of consensus. But energy independence is actually a very popular issue no matter what side of the aisle you're on, or country you're in, noted Slezak, since every country wants to have that kind of financial security.

The real battle, all three panelists agreed, was convincing people of the reasons why they should be energy independent:  Indeed, perhaps the biggest sustainability challenge looming behind behavior change is combating a commonly-held idea that climate change isn't real. Maybe that's a tough-love campaign for another day.

Watch the full video below:

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