Language of Change: A Climate of Optimism from Harvard Sustainability Experts

We need to tell the story differently. The combined message from scientists, nonprofits, and politicians seems to be that there are too many systems in place contributing to climate change, and too many problems that are growing because of it. A few weeks ago, a group of prominent Harvard alumni took a step in challenging that notion. This panel of four included former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, other government leaders, and our own David Kramer. They spoke to fellow alumni about making sustainability compatible with economic growth in a session titled “Moving Sustainability from Problem to Opportunity and Innovation.” We sat down with David to hear what the panel had to say, and how he presented EcoLogic’s conservation work as one successful approach to protecting communities in the face of climate change.

Dave Kramer and Felipe Calderon at Harvard

EcoLogic’s David Kramer (right) speaks at Harvard with former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (center) and panel facilitator Marilyn Averill (left) (Photo: Rebecca Chacko)

Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico, discussed the importance of government action. Calderón spoke about how land use greatly affects climate change and made it clear that inter-government collaboration is necessary when the shared goal is reducing carbon emissions. Leonardo Beltrán Rodríguez—currently Mexico’s deputy secretary for planning and energy transition—talked about sustainable energy. Mexico is an emerging economy, consuming more energy per person every year. The nation currently relies heavily on manufacturing and oil exports. However, Mexico’s new National Energy Strategy aims to ensure efficiency and long-term sustainability while continuing to grow GDP. One of the plan’s domestic goals is the increase of renewable power generation to 35% by 2026. Rodríguez spoke about the plan, and how diversifying Mexico’s energy portfolio would be beneficial for both people and planet. He also brought up the plan’s emphasis on accountability—ensuring that local and federal governments meet emissions reduction targets that have been set by international agreements.

Cynthia Giles, administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance, spoke about the EPA’s efforts to enforce environmental laws, like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, in the United States. Although many environmentalists think the relationship between business and government is a huge barrier to progress. However, Ms. Giles spoke about how innovators in business genuinely appreciate regulation because it helps them pursue initiatives that might be otherwise less economically attractive. Using positive language with businesses and agricultural groups means talking about opportunities instead of threats and dangers—language that makes a big difference.

When it was David’s turn to present, he chose to use EcoLogic’s work as an example of how positive change also comes from “the bottom up.” He emphasized how everyday people can and should drive stronger environmental policies. He told the story of our work in Honduras. There, multiple rural communities came together to manage the water supply on the outskirts of Pico Bonito National Park, and the system worked so well that the city of Olanchito has begun to replicate it on a larger scale. Other city governments in Honduras now want to as well. The power this kind of demand gives to the rural peoples who lead local water councils is tremendous.

When collaboration is possible, optimism flourishes. It’s clear that both “top down” (government and NGO-led) and “bottom up” (community-based) actions are needed for people to see genuine, healthy environmental change. People are ready to work for a sustainable future—they may just need to actively adjust their mindsets.

“Sometimes we need to change our language to make people see opportunities instead of problems,” David said. This means sometimes shifting our focus from threats and problems to progress and opportunities when talking about the environment. By celebrating the planting of new forests and cleanup projects, recognizing steps forward, and motivating people to keep working for the sake of their children’s future, we can sustain the momentum we need to build the world we want to see.

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