Mixed feelings over climate change communication in Bonn

« Technology won’t save us; trust me, I’m an engineer. »
Article and quote written by Antoine Gonthier

Taking the pulse of Solar Impulse

Why aren’t people more concerned about climate change? If this doesn’t apply to you then you are certainly familiar with that question.

That is one of the questions I hoped we would ask ourselves during the 4th Dialogue on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) taking place at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn last month. The objective was to help Parties and other stakeholders (intergovernmental and NGOs, private sector and media) exchange experiences, ideas and good practices on the topics of education, training and public awareness on climate change. Those topics are the focus of Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It all started well. After a motivating introduction by Nick Nuttall (Head of Communications and Outreach and Spokesperson UNFCCC) pointing the relevant questions and calling on all of us to share our ideas and lessons better than showcasing our last year’s projects, we were shown two inspiring videos of young people leading amazing projects on climate change education around them. To my great surprise, the third one was quite different and not as inspiring for me, and you will see through my article that this is a kind euphemism. It was an interview of Bertrand Piccard, CEO of Solar Impulse, currently on his round-the-world solar flight to promote clean energy. The video can be found below, please take the 4 next minutes to watch it before reading the rest. I’m not saying that every piece of it is wrong, but it left me with a feeling of anger and despair. I thought the best way to cope with that feeling was to share it…

“Science without conscience is but the ruin of soul”

I think Solar Impulse is a great technological achievement, and it proves that we can do almost everything with clean technologies. It’s the idea that this kind of technological improvement is sufficient to ensure a prosperous future for our planet that seems absurd to me: technological improvement and gain in efficiency have followed a beautiful exponential curve since the beginning of the industrial era. Sadly, you find the same for increase in energy use, CO2 emissions and natural resources depletion. In the end it did little for the Planet’s sake.

The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration, 16 January 2015, Anthropocene Review, W. Steffen et al.

When Bertrand Piccard tells us that the problem is “not so much the way we live […], it’s the outdated system we use” (2:13), he sends a wrong message: we indeed have to change the way we produce and consume. I’m doing my own interpretation of Rabelais’ quote by showing Mr Piccard at least two points he is missing: as clean as a technology can be, it still has an impact on our environment that becomes problematic when you start over-using it (the mining of minerals used in solar panels is not eco-friendly for example – I still think solar panels should be way more broadly used) and you can’t honestly think companies and states will get rid of their outdated system as long as they function well, needless to say are way cheaper than the alternatives.

Or you have to educate them in changing their approach to business, because they already know such “clean” technologies are available. This change doesn’t have to be catastrophic and scary; changing the way we live can in fact be a source of opportunities to rephrase Mr Piccard. Eating better food and using cleaner water, seeing a clearer purpose in our work, bonding with others by sharing products… And I think that for that great social, political, technological, cultural and behavioral transition to happen, we’ll have to change the way we define and measure value and progress. That idea brings me to my second point…
Environment is not an asset for economics purpose: economics are a social construct for humans to evolve in their environment.

Bertrand Piccard makes the case for profit. It’s great, and it might work very well with some companies board members or investors when they think about investing in the environment (again, I use Bertrand Piccard’s wording but I don’t believe in such thing as “investing in the environment”). But we were there talking about raising awareness and educating people: do we want them to view the environment as a bank account?

To conclude, there is only one thing I agree on and probably all of the associations presents too: you can’t make people feel empowered if you are only showing them how bad the situation is. You have to show them the solutions, and the great society we could build by acting together in the right direction. Unfortunately for Bertrand Piccard, I think this was already clear to all of us around the table. But our solution is not making them think money will drive new technologies that will save us. We want to teach them how to understand their environment, reconnect with it and with other people, and create wealth: but it is not the same wealth we are talking about.

About the Author : Antoine Gonthier works as a consultant for a former CEO of an energy companyantoine g on the thematic of the role of companies’ directors on the integration of sustainability into strategies. He joined CliMates’ forces last year and currently serves as treasurer.

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