Professor James Sweeney at the Energy Efficiency Council conference in Sydney  this week

7 December 2012 – On the word “green” and how to make people: 1) really angry about green: 2) take action; 3) back right away, such as GE in its replacement for Ecomagination

So the feds needed to back down on handballing environment protection out to the states, huh?

Wise move. The earth was just about to rise up before them and undermine any good works the prime minister Julia Gillard has done to retrieve some public support. Polls said 85 per cent of Australians would not support the proposed move. Every green in the country was stirring to a major battle. Even the birdwatchers.

Who knows how far an angry electorate can go when the issue drums up the right passion at the right time. Many people remember the Franklin River campaign as likely as any unwinnable fight that was won. It can happen again.

Partly some of the anger comes from outrageous behaviour, such as coal seam fracking that has managed to infuriate across party lines. As it should.

On Sunday, by the way, Paddy Manning, specialist energy writer for Fairfax Media will launch his book, What the Frack? at Gleebooks at 3.30 pm and all welcome.

More anger will come from watching conservative forces such as the World Bank say we’re on track to 4 degrees. Possibly 6 degrees.

But the action will be slow to build because the first with that kind of news is shock. And that’s a kind of inertia. What’s the point, you might ask? The difference between 2 and 4 degrees, as someone said during the week is “human civilisation””

Yet, radical concerted change can minimise the damage.

If the world’s governments’ meeting at Doha in recent days decided to take such action, a lot could be achieved.

On Wednesday I tapped one of the global leaders in action on energy efficiency, who was speaking at the Energy Efficiency Council national conference in Sydney, for his views.

Professor James Sweeney

Professor James Sweeney is director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

The professor sees the potential for world governments acting in concert as remote.

“I hope you’re right but I don’t believe you’re right,” Sweeney said.

“First when the UN [United Nations] says there we need to limit warming to 2 degrees, it’s not going to happen. All the analysts who are doing the careful modelling say, no way in hell you’re going to get there.”

There’s a glimmer of hope, though, but sadly from nothing stronger than that “none of us knows what’s going to happen”.

What intrigues the professor, as far as you suspect he will allow himself, is the impact of superstorm Sandy that hit New York recently.

“I think in the US superstorm Sandy may be a game changer,” Sweeney said.

The reason is that while other storms hit low income areas, “and yes, everyone was sad, this one hit the power centre of the United States. It hit New England and New Jersey”.

And it hit Wall Street.

“And while we don’t absolutely know it was climate change because the weather is the weather, the scientific belief is that the probability [of wild weather] increases with warming. One degree difference in the sea is a large change.”

So what’s just happened is that a “whole group of people of influence in industries like the financial markets are saying maybe we have to do something about this”, Sweeney says.

Of course the denial forces are still very strong.

Sweeney looks to companies such as Exxon Mobil, which say the country needs a carbon price, as hopeful.

Things can indeed look quiet on the surface, says Sweeney. “But you get enough momentum across the political spectrum and across economic corporations and financial industries that it can reach a tipping point, where it’s not cool to deny. The next step is doing something about it.”

China, China
One sign of hope is that there is one country acting “very aggressively” on climate and that’s the biggest emitter, China.

“China said in its last five-year plan that they would have very aggressive energy targets per unit of gross domestic product. And they are being very aggressive.

“If you get the US and China doing something and adding to what Europe is doing, then you don’t need all the other nations.”

Talk about something you can do
At the more micro level though, Sweeney finds it counter productive to talk about climate change. Instead he talks about the energy triangle of energy efficiency, energy security and climate change.

“If I talk about climate policy I see eyes glaze over.”

One reason, he suspects is that with climate change people see they can have the same amount of influence as “the eyebrows of a gnat”.

“But with energy policy people can start envisioning things they can do: they can put solar on their roofs or build a wind machine; they can put in insulation.”

It’s how the human mind works, says Sweeney.

The longer it engages with an issue, the more likely it is to act on it. That’s why the advertisers spend so much effort to keep the attention of their customers as long as possible.

Maybe the big fellas are scared too.
GE last Tuesday launched its replacement song and dance for Ecomagination. It’s called the Industrial Internet and it’s shocking to see there was no mention of climate change or the environment.

The indefatigable Joanne Woo, communications director for GE Global Growth & Operations, Australia & New Zealand had some snappy rationale. Maybe green and sustainability were the wrong words, she told The Fifth Estate. Maybe “green” is elitist, because if you’re green you’re positioning yourself as someone who is doing the right thing while all of us should be doing something.

Chief executive Jeff Immelt last year told Reuters “If I had one thing to do over again I would not have talked so much about green”.

“Even though I believe in global warming and I believe in the science… it just took on a connotation that was too elitist; it was too precious and it let opponents think that if you had a green initiative, you didn’t care about jobs. I’m a businessman. That’s all I care about, jobs.”

Woo backed up her global boss.

“We shouldn’t have positioned Ecomagination as a green initiative and about sustainability. It’s about smart business and energy efficiency. It’s about skills and how do we respond to resource scarcity.”

It’s more the word green that people have been questioning. Sustainability is broad but it can talk about business in general, Woo said.

“So sustainability is important to us but it’s more the word green that brings it to an elitist way of thinking.

“Everyone has a role to play in terms play in terms of responding to climate change.

“That’s why wee say there needs to be a change in everyone.”

See what Greenbiz wrote about GE and the Industrial Internet