Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens

Is tragedy the only thing that creates change?

Preface: This week’s deep-dive takes on a deeply personal issue for a lot of people. I’d like to make clear that the purpose of this post is not to compare or rank in any way the severity of the issues before our society. Instead, I want to share an objective framework for progress using the three most pressing issues I think we face today - all three of which I believe we should tackle with the upmost urgency. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, March 11th.

Just like most weeknights, Anita and I are having dinner after putting our son to bed when I get an alert on my phone “NBA suspends season indefinitely after player tests positive for COVID-19”.

Monday, May 25th.

Just like most weeknights, Anita and I are laying in bed, catching up on our days while scrolling through social media. But this time, the video of George Floyd being murdered is everywhere.

You may be asking yourself, what do these two events have to do with energy and climate?

Inspired by a recent paper from scientists in Germany empirically exploring the question “do we need disasters to adopt environmental policies?”

I wanted to understand if our collective needs tragedy to ignite real change. I think the overwhelming answer is yes, and not just one disaster but many.

The research in the paper above provides a framework to evaluate collective action problems like racial equality, COVID, and decarbonization. To spur real transformations, we need understanding, localized effects, and bias for action as a result of the first two.

Much like decarbonization, COVID-19 is difficult to understand for the majority of people. While the basic science is pretty clear, we’re still debating the severity of the illness and things like masks as an effective preventive measure. AMC has stated they will not require masks to avoid “being drawn into a political controversy”. (Note: they’ve since changed their policy)

Similarly, alignment on decarbonization as a real need is happening, but which solutions are work and how quickly they’re deployed remain topics of fierce debate.

Next, the public must feel localized effects of not solving the problem facing the collective. Our milage cannot vary based on geography.

The murder of George Floyd appears to have finally tipped the scales of momentum towards long-awaited and long-overdue progress on racial equality in our country. Regrettably, it took multiple tragedies to move us forward, or at least begin the process in earnest.

Now that we are more connected than ever, the effects of these senseless events have localized. These images captured on our cell phones are no longer of strangers but our friends and our family.

How has this played out in decarbonization? Wildfires have raged in Australia and California, killing hundreds. Hurricanes have devastated Houston and Puerto Rico, leaving thousands homeless. Droughts have reduced crop yields in the midwest and abroad, increasing the likelihood of food scarcity.

Unsurprisingly, all of these areas have taken steps to make their region more resilient to the effects of a warming planet and the natural disasters that come with them because they’ve felt the impact.

While it may seem like our world is currently facing threats on many fronts, this framework has left me more hopeful for our future than ever.

For the first time in several years, our society is taking on some of the biggest problems of our generation all during a global pandemic. And while we have many challenges ahead on all three fronts, it now feels as though we are finally embracing the “bias for action” stage that will lead us into a better future.