The Greatest Existential Threat to Our Planet: Spoiler Alert … It’s Not Climate
The huge and widening disparity in well-being in the United States and globally must be addressed for climate action to succeed.
Green Builder Magazine is dedicated to supporting the climate movement. I’m proud to be a regular contributor to this mission. After all, we are confronted with compelling empirical evidence that climate is in fact a growing existential threat to our planet. Disturbing findings include:
- Atmospheric CO2: Since the onset of industrial times in the 18 th century, human activities have raised atmospheric CO 2 by 50 percent equivalent to 150 percent of its value in 1750 .
- Global Warming: The magnitude and rate of warming over the last 150 years far surpasses the magnitude and rate of changes over the last 24,000 years
- Ocean Warming: With about 90 percent of global warming occurring in the ocean, the last 10 years were the ocean’s warmest decade since at least the 1800s.
- Biodiversity: Species are going extinct 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal background rate with estimates that 30 to 50 percent of all species are going extinct by 2050.
- Sea Level Rise: Three-times faster sea level rise is estimated in the next 30 years (one foot) compared to past 100 years.
- Extreme Climate: Six times more billion-dollar climate related severe storms occurred during 2001-2022 than during the previous two decades.
I assume the severity of climate change is not a news flash to GBM readers who probably all agree more aggressive actions are needed to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Nonetheless, I’ll suggest climate is not the greatest existential threat to life on this planet. Not even close. Hopefully this point will be clear with two maps I’ll introduce later … or not, and instead stimulate a lot of hopefully beneficial discussion.
Please note that I’m not suggesting we take our foot off the climate action pedal. Instead, this article is a plea to recognize the elephant in the room. None of our climate protection efforts have a chance of achieving their intended goals if we don’t address the biggest threat to our planet … the huge and widening disparity in well-being here in the U.S. and globally.
This article will examine this disparity, why it eliminates any chance of persistent climate actions, and suggest how to integrate it in the larger climate movement to ensure success. Our lives depend on it.
The Great Global Disparity: Well-Being
The Social Science Research Council launched a metric called “well-being” in 2008 that augments how we measure economic and social progress. This metric is based on measurements for three key indicators in America’s 435 congressional districts and Washington D.C.:
- Life Expectancy–measures likelihood of a long and healthy life from birth,
- Education–measures access to knowledge based on school enrollment of people ages 3 to 24 (weighted 1/3) and education degree attainment for those 25 and older (weighted 2/3), and
- Median Earnings–measures standard of living for full- and part-time workers 16 and older.
A report published in 2015 includes individual maps depicting the measured results for each of these well-being indicators. It also includes a map combining the measure results for all three indicators into a single human development index (see Figure 1).
According to the graphic key, the darker the color the higher the human development index or overall well-being. Among detailed findings in the report, I’ll suggest that the key takeaway is that there is a dramatic discrepancy geographically in well-being across the nation with up to two-times or greater regional variation from higher to lower human development index scores.
Figure 1: American human development index by congressional district
A major revelation occurs when the American human development index map is shown side-by-side with a map of 2020 presidential election voting results (see Figure 2) . The huge disparity in well-being is highly correlated to the historically polarized political divide in this country. Specifically, democratic voting regions highly supportive of climate protection policies have significantly greater well-being than republican voting regions that substantially reject climate protection policies.
Figure 2: High correlation between well-being and political affiliation
I’ll suggest that this observation is highly relevant to the success of the climate movement. If people are experiencing vastly worse health, education and earnings, it is incredibly challenging to get their support for climate policies advocated by the government leadership and institutions that have ignored their well-being for the past 50 to 75 years.
This demographic can’t get past their day-to-day struggles finding affordable housing, achieving meaningful savings, avoiding defaults on automobile loans, paying inflated prices for necessities, and disproportionately confronting the burdens of increasing crime.
Messages inciting fear and blame are magnitudes easier to hear than stories about scientific findings about the risks of combusting fossil fuels whether it be severe climate events, extreme temperatures, or rising oceans.
The age of the internet compounds the communication challenge as disparate political groups have locked into their own silos of information to the point where we are no longer dealing with common sets of facts, trusted sources of information, and exposure to the same news content.
Looking beyond our borders, the exponentially growing gap between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ populations is in fact a worldwide phenomenon with rising inequality affecting two-thirds of the globe. Many attribute the rise of global authoritarianism over past decades to exploding inequality with fewer than a fifth of the world’s population now living in fully free countries.
In other words, the growing demographic group suffering from low well-being can be easily attracted to vote for leadership promising to blow up the established government rules, norms, and institutions that have badly failed them for extended periods of time. The ability to convert this underserved demographic into a majority voting block is fueled by exponentially growing tools to disseminate propaganda and conspiracy theories that effectively tap into anger, frustration and a desire to assign blame.
Decades of failure to ensure well-being are coming to roost. Without democracies, it will be impossible to have any persistent and coherent policies and actions to address the climate crisis. Thus, the personal observation that disparity in well-being is the greatest existential threat to our planet that trumps climate and can no longer be ignored.
Integrating the Disparity in Well-Being with the Climate Movement
A personal philosophy in any endeavor is that leadership is everything. It sets the course. And if you’re not going in the right direction, everything else suffers. I’ve seen too many examples of this principle over my long career starting when I transitioned from architecture to climate protection in the 1980s.
I had joined the California Energy Commission (CEC) and was carpooling with the director of the Transportation Office. Under his leadership, the decision was made to go all-in on methanol as the only alternative clean fuel to gasoline. This singular focus applied to all of his approximately 50 staff, research investments, consulting contracts, methanol car fleet, and methanol fueling stations.
During this time, I was moonlighting as an architect and the chairman of the CEC was a client. General Motors had given him a concept electric car called the GM Impact. When he let me take it out on a test drive, I couldn’t believe the superior comfort, acceleration, handling, quiet, and technology displays ... innovations would ultimately arrive on the scene decades later.
Inspired by this experience, I made the mistake the next morning of asking the Transportation Office director if he considered including electric vehicles in his program. He responded with the most verbally abusive attack I have ever experienced in my career. When the one-way shouting was over, it was clear he thought my comment was “inexcusably naïve” and didn’t believe electric vehicles had any possible future deserving of his program’s attention.
Fast forward to today, and history shows California wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and lost decades of time going in the wrong direction. Methanol-fueled cars have had no meaningful impact on the transportation sector in the state or nation.
With that leadership story in mind, I’d like to suggest we need a new direction in how we engage the world about climate. This is based on the belief that any near-term wins with climate policies and actions are at grave risk of being short-lived in absence of broad support from the growing disenfranchised voting block not experiencing well-being. They don’t recognize the existential threat posed by climate and are not voting for leaders who do.
Once again, I’m fearful that new thinking may invoke anger; this time among so many of my climate community friends I admire for their diligence on such a vital issue. However, I’m concerned there will be inadequate results mitigating climate risks if leadership doesn’t make a mid-course correction.
Specifically, I’m suggesting it’s time to integrate all climate messaging, policies, and actions with the much larger existential threat: disparity in well-being. This can only happen if we know the people who struggle with well-being much more, see them more deeply, and then in turn become deeply seen by them. As a great start, I’ll refer readers to a special new book on this subject by David Brooks, ‘How to Know a Person.”1 For the purposes of this article, I recommend the following three steps to get the climate movement on the path of being heard.
Step 1: Shift the focus of all climate messaging to well-being.
I teach that effective communication is dependent on leading with your “why” following Simon Sinek’s ground-breaking work on this subject.2 However, I find that sustainable building and climate messaging is too often focused on the “what” or “how” which are at best only interesting to those not in the choir (e.g., climate community). In contrast, effective “why” messaging inspires by speaking to the core reason you exist. And we badly need to inspire everyone when it comes to climate. The four criteria I have developed for effective “why” messaging are3:
- Simple to optimize clarity.
- Short to optimize retention.
- Emotional to optimize inspiration.
- Universal to optimize resonance.
While all these criteria badly need more attention by the climate community, universally resonating messaging may be the most critically lacking. And this starts with the name ‘climate change’ and all its variations. That’s because the word ‘climate’ immediately negates support by half or more of our population … those who are suffering from well-being.
If we deeply understand them, we will know this. Their information silos have effectively convinced them that the science is a hoax by countering dire predictions with other carefully curated experts, challenging facts linking environmental impacts to human activity, and tapping into the common perception there is nothing you can do about the changing weather.
The concept of climate change is not a universal message because it excludes the vast population of the country underserved by well-being. It is the opposite.
A more universal “why” would leverage a concept that resonates with virtually all who hear it. For example, I might suggest “home-grown energy” as a more universal message than climate. It may not be the right answer, but we can probably all agree it is much harder to object to policies and actions that leverage our vast home-grown natural resources as the solution to lower energy costs, higher-paying jobs, cleaner air, and greater national security. Or not, and we can work together to come up with another far superior message. Any effective climate communication has to be based on seeing those suffering from well-being more deeply to be heard much more deeply.
Step 2: Filter regulations and policies to eliminate unforced errors.
One of my passions away from work is tennis, both as a spectator and a player. A profound indicator of success in this sport is minimizing unforced errors. This occurs when an unnecessary risk is taken going for too good a shot returning a neutral ball and the result is ball in the net or off the court. In other words, a point that didn’t have to be lost.
Market transformation is hard enough without making unforced errors. I built a whole career with ENERGY STAR Certified Home and Zero Energy Ready Home trying to avoid these. One of the most egregious unforced errors in climate is imposing regulations and policies that offend half or more of your audience.
A good example is the policy to ban gas cooking in new construction. The science is clear that cooking increases health risks in homes. However, regulating against choice is an unforced error that validates claims climate advocates are trying to take away your freedoms. Moreover, it is an aggressive shot that is not worth the risk because:
- Gas cooking can easily be replaced with electric cooking at any point in the future with minimal cost penalty or disruption, especially with alternative ‘electric ready’ policy is used to ensure a high amp outlet is provided when gas cooking is provided.
- Electric induction cooking can be effectively promoted as a far superior user experience to natural gas cooking with significantly better safety, speed, clean-up, and control.
- There are significant cost savings for developers to eliminate installing a gas supply infrastructure just for gas cooking with the growing movement to advanced heat pump technology for space and water heating.
Similarly, the case can be made that unforced errors were made with California’s policies mandating solar rooftop systems on new homes and all electric vehicles by 2035. There are much easier ways to achieve the desired climate goals than adding the significant solar energy system costs to the least affordable housing market in the country and removing freedom of choice for preferred personal transportation.
For example, there is much less burden and cost implementing policies that rely on communicating the superior user experiences of induction cooking, solar systems, and electric vehicles along with appropriate incentives to offset the massive taxpayer subsidies provided to fossil fuels. These subsidies include:
- Environmental Cleanup: It costs hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up contamination from fossil fuel spills and mining processes.
- Freshwater Contamination: Less than 1% of the water covering three-fourths of the Earth’s surface is available for human consumption and this dwindling resource essential to life is being increasingly contaminated by fossil fuel extraction and processing (e.g., each fracking well uses between 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water containing substances like arsenic, lead, chlorine, and mercury that can leach into groundwater and drinking water).
- Military Expenses: Approximately $81 billion per year is spent at a minimum by the U.S. military to protect global oil supplies and over $2 trillion, or roughly $8,000 per taxpayer, has been spent on the Iraq War which many political pundits have linked to protecting our nation’s oil interests in this region.
- Tax Incentives: Roughly $20 billion per year of U.S. direct subsidies go to the fossil fuel industry (e.g., expensing exploration, development, and intangible drilling costs; use of percentage depletion instead of cost depletion to recover drilling; development costs of oil and gas wells and coal mines; and numerous smaller incentives for production and distribution).
- Strategic Petroleum Reserve: Approximately $228 million was spent by the U.S. government in 2022 for reserves that ensure energy and economic security tied to our dependence on refined petroleum and crude oil.
- Health Costs: More than $820 billion a year are incurred for health costs attributed to fossil-fuel generated air pollution and climate change, a burden falling heaviest on vulnerable communities.
One study estimates a total cost of $5.3 trillion globally in 2015 for negative externalities from the adverse environmental, climate, and public health impacts of fossil fuels. This is a really big number. It’s time that climate policy didn’t take the unnecessary risk of restricting freedoms, but instead demanded a level playing field in subsidies for all fuel options.
This is a strategy that aligns with the strong preference for free market principles in regions suffering the most from well-being and eliminates the ability to link climate policies with regulating how you prefer to live. The movement is too important to make this unforced error.
Step 3: Implement a collective impact process that links climate and well-being.
If climate can be repositioned into a much more effective “Why” messaging and discipline applied to leveraging policies that do not offend those suffering from well-being, then the last step is to organize a fully coordinated movement rather than incremental and disparate policies and actions.
This can be accomplished using a successful market transformation tool reported in a Standford University study called “Collective Impact.” Following extensive research of highly successful market transformation initiatives (e.g., reversing pollution in the Elizabeth River in Virginia, fixing a failed education system in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky), the authors were able to identify five conditions associated with successful transformation:
- common agenda
- shared measurement systems
- mutually reinforcing activities
- continuous communication, and
- backbone support organizations
I’ll refer readers to the study for the details and suggest It is time the climate movement employed this type of proven solution for effecting change.
Keeping Well-Being at the Forefront
The key recommendation from this article is that it’s critical that all climate programs and policies are effectively aligned with the greatest existential threat to our planet, disparity in well-being.
This entails a commitment to ensuring the growing majority of Americans struggling with well-being know they are being heard, feel there is genuine empathy for their suffering, and believe new policies help solve their problems. Nothing less has a chance of bridging the vast polarization between those passionate about addressing climate risk and those deeply distrusting norms, institutions, and government.
The good news is there are huge opportunities for common ground. That’s because climate responsive policies can dramatically enhance health, education, and earnings.
Let this be the start of the discussion … but we need to act fast. The well-being of the planet cannot be protected if the growing majority of the world’s population significantly lagging in well-being are not vested in the policies and actions that address the existential threat associated with climate change.
The right leadership will see this underserved demographic deeply and be deeply seen by them.
1 “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen,” David Brooks, Random House, New York, 2023.
2 “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” Simon Sinek, Penguin Group, 2009
3 “Housing 2.0: A Disruption Survival Guide,” Sam Rashkin, Green Builder Media, 2021
This Housing 2.0 presentation is sponsored by: Jinko Solar .