The new civil rights movement


I spent the last two days closeted in a conference room in Washington, learning about and occasionally talking about systems thinking as it could apply to energy and climate policy. There is a lot to digest from the meeting, but one comment in particular struck home for me and many of the other participants.

One of the key issues everyone involved in climate policy grapples with is how to galvanize both the public and policymakers about the urgent need for action. What’s going to change minds?

MIT’s John Sterman is one of the world’s leading thinkers on systems dynamics. But on the issue of transforming minds he didn’t resort to his systems diagrams or feedback loops. “It needs to be the civil rights movement,” he said flatly. Climate change, he argued, isn’t amenable to a Manhattan Project-like scientific megaproject, because it involves the behavior of every person in the country (and the world). We need to shift everyone’s mentality in a dramatic way.

I’m always struck when I read history books about the late ’50s or early ’60s — years when I was alive, if not terribly aware of the world around me. The US described in, for example, Taylor Branch’s stunning multi-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr is unrecognizable from today’s America. It isn’t just the election of Barack Obama (although that is the most staggering evidence). It’s the wholesale shift against everyday, assumed racism across much of society.

Part of responding to climate change is going to need an equivalent mass shift. It’s almost impossible to imagine, and we don’t have the luxury of many decades to change. But dramatic, unthinkable change has occurred before.

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