Talking to the Other Side
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 29th May. I’m Anthony Day.
The theme of this episode is Talking to the Other Side. How do we talk to the other side about the climate emergency? How do we find common ground? How do we get everyone working together? I spoke to Kevin Wilhelm CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting in Seattle.
Anthony Day: I’m talking to Kevin Wilhelm, who with Natalie Hoffman is joint author of a book called “How to Talk to the Other Side: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession, and Climate Change.” Now, I know the coronavirus and recession are very much at the forefront of our minds at the moment, but the climate emergency has not gone away. We really need to be able to talk to the other side because there are people who have vested interests and there are people who are dogmatically opposed to the idea that climate change is a problem. So, how do we talk to the other side, Kevin?
Kevin Wilhelm: Well, I think the biggest issue that most people have is they’ve already set their mindset that they can’t agree with somebody who may disagree with them, so when we talk about issues like climate change, the economy, this has been going on for decades. All the way back to, in the United States, at least since 1987, but even if you think of the first Earth summit in Rio and the second one in South Africa, both times there was economic uncertainty that was going on globally. Politicians and business groups came together and said, we can’t take action on this because it’s going to hurt the economy, and the same mindset is starting to happen now.
Through my consulting work and what we laid out in this book, is dozens of examples of businesses that have made more money by leaning into the climate change efforts, because they’ve saved on energy, they’ve saved on water, they’ve saved on transportation costs, they’ve innovated new ways of delivering products and services. You’re even seeing it in the financial markets, we’ve seen record growth of the stock market for the last 10 years up until, say, February of this year, and even during that time, those companies that were on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index or the S&P 500 Environmental and Social Index outperformed traditional indices which were performing at record highs. There’s this myth that you have to give up money or sacrifice to do the right thing environmentally, and from a climate perspective, what we wanted to do was really flip that notion on its head and show the examples of where it’s win win, regardless of your perspective. That’s one thing that we’ve used as an example to bring people from opposite sides, because we feel money is a nonpartisan issue. If you can make more money and I can make more money, then ideology somehow falls away a little.
AD: Yes. Then you have the very big players, particularly in energy, you know I’m going to talk about oil, talk about coal. There’s not a lot you can do to change your business to be environmentally responsible. You can’t mine coal in an environmentally friendly way, or at least, if you do, burning coal is not environmentally friendly. Those are the sorts of pressures that we have to find common ground with or at least we’ve got to convince them that we need change.
KW: Yeah, absolutely. Coal is a really difficult one. I like to look at the entire fossil fuel industry as one area and then each of them a little separately. If you think about it, we used to call them oil companies, now we call them energy companies, and that’s because BP, Shell, even Exxon Mobil realized that there was going to be a finite resource and the costs of getting to some of these places was going to be really difficult. As you’ve seen, oil prices have come way down, the more extreme places like the tar sands or the deep ocean off of Brazil no longer make financial sense. They had to shift because wind and solar power have become cost competitive. You’ve seen what were traditional oil companies become energy companies because they realized they can still provide energy in a different way. We’ve also seen a number of energy companies who have switched from coal to natural gas, because natural gas is cleaner but mostly because its cheaper right now with all the fracking that’s been going on. So there’s been this shift and it’s been mostly market driven, even though it’s been played out like the environmentalists are the ones killing the coal industry.
The coal industry in itself, it’s a dying breed and it’s a dying beast. One of the things that we go out of our way in this book to make clear is that you can’t just let whole communities and ways of life just die. You need to reach out and find ways to make their lives better. There’s a couple of examples in our book where in the coal country in the United States there’s been movement by organizations to go into these communities and find them higher paying jobs, taking their skills they use as miners and retraining them to be solar technicians or wind power technicians, so you’re automatically giving them a job, so they have their livelihood, the tax base is the same, it goes to the community, but all the black lung disease and all the health problems can melt away. So it’s a generational shift, so that’s a hard one, but we’ve seen it happen in the aerospace industry in the 90s when the cold war ended, they took defense contractors and retrained them, and then you had explosions in DirecTV and the Dish Network and GPS and all these commercially viable companies grew out of it by training defense contractors and I think we can do the same thing in the fossil fuel industry.
AD: Do you see the market doing that or do you think the government is needed to actually push this forward?
KW: I definitely think the government needs to help. I think the market has already made its decision on coal, its not coming back. There’s been over 85 different coal companies just in the United States that have gone bankrupt just in the last 3 years. You’re in the UK, there are probably more people that work in McDonalds in the United Kingdom than work in the coal industry in the US. There’s actually a stat I have in the book that there’s more people who work at the Arbys fast food restaurant chain than the coal industry in the United States but we’re not giving bailouts to Arbys. Government does need to be at play, and like any transition, you have to find a way where you can’t just abandon a community and a way of life and just expect things to get better because then you’re going to have the societal costs that you’re seeing of opioid addiction, unemployment, crime, and everything that can happen, so they have to lean in and play that temporary role during that transition to attract the market for regrowth for that area in the economy.
AD: From where I’m standing, your national government certainly doesn’t seem to be doing much in that direction. But then again, you have a different structure, maybe it’s just your state governments which are leading this sort of initiative.
KW: Some of the states and a lot of nonprofit organizations. I know the reach of your podcast is international, and as someone who has been a proud American their whole life, these last three years have been extremely difficult to talk to my international friends, because we’re not leading anymore. We’re doing the opposite of leading, we’re making things so much worse at the federal level. But what you’re seeing is states and businesses are leaning into things. When the Trump administration announced they were going to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, states and big businesses came stepped up and said we’re still in, and there were enough big businesses and states that would be able to reduce emissions and committed to reducing emissions, so it doesn’t matter if the federal government isn’t aligned because the emissions from the United States can still meet the Paris Climate Accords. It’s one of those things where we’re all having to find ways around where the blockages, and it actually would be a good model for developing countries or other countries where they may not be seeing the ideas around the opportunity on climate change, only the negative aspects of it. I think that if a country like the UK decided overnight, we’re going to be the leader in green technology, and we’re going to massively change our whole way of life, there would be an economic explosion on that because somebody is going to win that race, it’s just no one has really committed to it.
AD: Yes, I’d certainly like to see that happen. Tell me, who is your book aimed at? The general reader, business, government, or what?
KW: You know, that’s a great question, Anthony, because its really put out for the general public, but its got multiple audiences. Basically, because in our country and I think in every country, there are “sides,” you’ve got labor, you’ve got conservatives, in our country you’ve got Republicans and Democrats. You can also break it down by religion, by geographical location, by rural vs. urban. So what we tried to do was pick six different examples of “other sides” where you hear about it in the popular media or social media where people are at odds. We tried to write a very neutral book, right down the center, where we tried to say here are opportunities for common ground with people who you might think are on the other side but are really just like you. You know, everyone wants to be healthy, their kids to grow up safe, better education, better opportunities, they want to have a good job and want to be able to retire. So by starting these shared aspirations for where you can find common ground, what gets everyone caught up is how they’re doing it, and that’s where the politics, the media craze messes it all up, so what we try to do is show the win-win examples that work for both sides and ways to lower the temperate of the conversation so that you can have a productive path forward.
AD: Right. We are living in difficult times at the moment, to say the least. But taking an overall view, would you then say that you are optimistic?
KW: I’ll put it this way, if you had asked me in February, before the global pandemic, I would have said yes. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic because I think one of the reasons we wrote this book right now to be very contemporary with the pandemic and the recession, was we wanted to be very real. We didn’t want to put out something that would be pie in the sky, well that would be great, but for 25% unemployment, what are you going to do. We’ve really leaned into that, and even in these economic times, what you’re seeing is people are longing for community, they’re longing for connection, their busy rat race day-to-day lives that they had been doing, they’re now taking a step back and asking, where do I want to be spending my money, where do I want to be spending my time, how do I want to be living. I think there’s been a cultural awakening of people who want to buy local, to shop from local restaurants, to save their money and if they’re going to spend it, spend it on something that’s going to help their neighbor or friend who has a small business. That gives me optimism.
My firm, Sustainable Business Consulting, we’ve been consulting for 15 years with 160+ global clients, and the idea that telling someone that all their employees tomorrow are going to work from home and they’re going to stop all business travel and its going to be great for the planet, that would fall on deaf ears. What we’ve seen is now, in a matter of 2 months, companies who would have never changed their mindset have been forced to change their mindset. We’ve already seen global carbon emissions to come down 17%, but for a lot of our clients, a lot of their emissions may have come from business travel, if this pandemic continues for another couple months, people are going to be so used to virtual conferencing and doing things remotely, it gives us a fighting chance to do these things. Same thing with commuting, I literally was having a conversation with a client the day before COVID-19 hit in Seattle, and I was telling them, 33% of your emissions come from your commuting, if you try to work from home one day a week, you could cut those emissions by 20%. They were like, we can’t do it, that’s not how our business works, and within two weeks, 100% of their workforce is working remotely. That gives me optimism because it breaks the mindset of what is possible, and if we could come out with some lessons learned and some new ways of doing things, I am actually a little bit optimistic.
AD: Well, that’s great, its great to have a positive message, it really is. Kevin, your book is out now.
KW: It’s on sale on Amazon and also on Kindle.
AD: Well, thank you very much for sharing your ideas. It’s interesting and its always great to have a positive message on a Friday, so thank you very much indeed.
KW: Alright, thanks so much, take care.
That was Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting in Seattle, Washington. www.sustainablebizconsulting.com
As he said, "How to Talk to the Other Side: Finding Common Ground amongst COVID, Recession, & Climate Change”, is now available at your favourite bookshop.
If you’ve already listened to this week’s other episode you’ll know that we have a new patron. Welcome to newest patron Pamela McAllister, over there in Queensland, Australia. I was going to say you’re our first patron in Australia, but in fact that distinction goes to Colin Clarke who’s near Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. Many thanks to Pamela McAllister, Colin Clarke and all other patrons who help to make the Sustainable Futures Report possible. And a special mention to Imogen Littlejohns, my longest-standing patron. Special thanks to you.
And that’s it…
…for this week. That’s the fourth episode in two weeks, so I make no promises for next week. Although given that Friday 5th is World Environment Day I suppose I should do something.
Anyway, you can be sure that I’m Anthony Day, and there will be another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report…