Thomas Friedman, in Hot, Flat and Crowded, proposes that we refer to our time as the "Energy-Climate Era." Friedman's thesis -- that the converging trends of rapid population growth, man-made climate change, and peak oil will define our time -- is well-argued. But events since the date of publication invite a refinement upon Friedman's label for our time.
First, and consistent with Friedman's analysis, the market for clean power is developing a heartbeat. In Europe, the electorate's attention to climate change has been broad enough to drive public-sector incentives for green energy. Technology entrepreneurs have responded to these incentives with impressive rates of innovation.
A case in point: photovoltaic energy, since 2008, has achieved cost/performance gains so impressive that analysts like McKinsey now see "grid parity" as an inflection point for planning new generating capacity in national electricity grids starting around 2015. And, while the developing world has had fewer resources to support feed-in tariff programs, recent policy signals from both China and India suggest that political leadership in both countries is more attuned to the issues of climate change and clean energy than generally credited. As clean electrons approach grid parity, both of these countries are poised to dramatically expand the size of the market -- driving a virtuous circle of even greater scale economies and technology innovation.
Second, COP 15, the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, produced an accomplishment that history may treat more kindly than did the commentaries immediately following the Dec. 2009 conference. The accomplishment was the development of a metric -- a limit of 2 degrees growth in average global temperatures that was declared by the world's leaders to be the maximum we can countenance. There's truth in the the saying, "what's measured is what's managed." It's plausible that this metric can similarly galvanize attention and mobilize action and achievement on climate change.
It had better. Because the third development since Friedman's book of 2008 has been an avalanche of data suggesting that climate change is moving faster than previously thought. NASA's data indicate that polar ice is now melting at a net pace of 500 gigatons/year. Neither of the two most plausible explanations for this are comforting. Either the "fast-feedback" climate change models have been too conservative, or else the positive feedback loops that client scientists were hoping we might avert through coordinated global action on climate change have kicked in at lower CO2 levels than once projected.
When we take these three observations together, they invite us to think of a new label for our time -- and that is "the overshoot." In the narrow sense, the overshoot describes our time because our CO2 levels, in the estimation of climate scientists such as NASA's Jim Hansen, have already "overshot" the levels that will limit climate change to a maximum 2 degree climb over pre-industrial levels.
In the broader sense, the "overshoot" describes our time because the disruption of our global climate system participates in a pervasive pattern of unsustainable interactions between population growth, industrialization, consumer culture and multiple facets of our planetary ecosystem. Given our current appetites, behaviors, and economic assumptions, human civilization has "overshot" the sustainable capacity of our natural world.
From the standpoint of marketers, the overshoot might be a time for some sober reflection. It may also become a time that forces a new level of specialization of marketing talents and practices.
In the overshoot, this specialization will arise in response to the formation of two "tribes" that marketers will need to hail differently. Consider, for instance, that iconic (or cliché) image of a gleaming new SUV carving around the corners of a pristine mountain road. Now imagine the polarization of reactions such an image must stimulate today. One group remains open to seduction. The other is struck with revulsion that the marketer would so overlook sensitivities to carbon emissions.
Professional communicators are accustomed to dealing with different audience segments or tribes, but there's a nuance here to note. In our current context, tribal affiliation may go beyond assumptions about which products and which messages fit with which customers -- it will also drive assumptions about how one persuades.
To get at this point, observe the on-line comment string in response to almost any web-published article on climate change. Have you noticed first, how consistently these comment strings are dominated by denial of climate change? Decades of compelling scientific evidence have not altered this bias. Directly observable changes like satellite images of disappearing sea ice have not altered this bias. It leads one to pose the question of how, in the face of the evidence, could such a large group deny climate change with such passionate, undiluted certainty?
For me, the psychological concept of "cognitive dissonance" is useful in understanding this phenomenon. To borrow from the lexicon of psychology, dissonance can lead to "confirmation bias" -- the denial of disconfirming evidence and other "ego defense" mechanisms. I find this a compelling explanation for the distribution of public opinion relative to the evidence on climate change.
The climate change problem presents a systemic challenge to the assumptions and habits upon which most of us have constructed our lives. One tribe responds with a desire to learn more about the situation and what can be done about it. The other tribe senses the profound threat that the overshoot presents to their way of being in the world. And for these people, climate change denial is not a rational response to data -- it's an emotional defense against the implications of the data. Trying to win over this group with more evidence seems to be about as fruitful as trying to fight a fire by dousing the flames with gasoline.
As marketers and communicators, I suspect, for the next period of time at least, we will need to be clear at all times which tribe we are addressing. The overshoot will be a powerful force shaping the way people respond to messages, products and experiences. Some people want to learn with a burning urgency. Others -- just the opposite. Good luck reconciling both views in one brand's tribe.