Building Will to Change our Fossil-Fuel Based Economies

My colleague Tom Nolan at the Associates for Process Improvement has outlined three ingredients for change, expressed as a positive feedback cycle:

Tom’s picture applies to both small, tactical changes as well as huge changes, like weaning an economy from fossil fuels.

To change a system, each ingredient is necessary but insufficient by itself or even paired with one of the other ingredients.

Lack of political will is the primary reason the U.S. has not taken meaningful action to address climate change. In “Climate:  Will We Lose the Endgame?” Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books, 10 July 2014, gives a sobering summary. He describes our current U.S. political situation in the context of Antarctic research that shows major glaciers are starting to melt in an unstoppable way. While time is short to mitigate effects of climate change that are almost surely coming in the next century, McKibben concludes review with some good news. He cites a recent afternoon in which Germany generated 74% of its electricity from renewable resources. He goes on to say: “The resource that got it done in Germany was political will, which is infinitely renewable.”

Henry Paulson, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from July 2006 to January 2009, is attempting to build political will.  In his work at the Paulson institute, a University of Chicago“think-and-do tank” and the Risky Business Project, he aims to get business decision makers to see the realities of climate change and the critical need to move away from fossil fuels. Paulson also makes a clear case for a carbon tax in the New York Times, 22 June 2014, citing the same just-published Antarctic research McKibben described in his review.

Lack of adequate will to change undercuts discovery and deployment of good ideas.  Lack of will also leads to underinvestment in the hard work of actually making appropriate changes.   On the other hand, our will can build relatively quickly, when enough people change their own thoughts and beliefs.   I’m encouraged by Paulson’s work and thank him for his contributions.  Despite the grim news from the Antarctic, we just might be able to generate enough will soon to limit the harm from climate change.

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