Do We Need a “One Thing” Approach to Climate?

During Earth Month, I get asked to do a lot of interviews and podcasts by people who don’t spend all year thinking about sustainability and social responsibility. This week one of my interviewers asked, “What’s the one thing everyone should do to combat climate change?” Without even pausing I said, “Get off fossil fuels.” He gave me the “tell me more” slightly puzzled look. Burning fossil fuels – primarily coal, oil and gas – are the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, I explained. So if you systematically look at where they enter your life, you can now make smart choices. Start with your home electricity and switch to renewable energy or write your town/utility and tell them to offer it. If you pay for oil or gas, switch to a heat pump as soon as your system ages. If you need a new car, go electric. Tackle plastics, especially single use (yes, made from fossil fuels).

My normal way to respond is “eat more plants”, which is technically the most impactful action an individual can take. But I went this week with fossils because a side bonus of reducing fossil fuel use is the potential positive social impact. When you get off fossils, you indirectly reduce funds going to some pretty awful people on this planet. Tom Friedman calls them the “petro-dictators”. We’ve seen the tragedy one of those petro-dictators has unleashed on Ukraine. Every time I drive or fly or turn on the heat right now, I can’t help but think I’m somehow contributing to that horror.

At work, I’m a big believer in the “one thing” methodology for personal productivity. As I answered the one thing question that day, it dawned on me that we may need to bring that methodology into the climate movement. How many “10 things you can do to save the planet” listicles have you seen? Last week, I directed you to the nine behaviors that matter. But that is still nine things! Who remembers 9 things? Have we inadvertently, and despite best intentions, created what’s known in behavior change as the paradox of choice (a fabulous book and TedTalk by WeSpire advisor Barry Schwartz). With too many options, we ultimately choose nothing.

So what would happen if we could get global alignment around a “one thing” (for individuals) and put all our government, business, and community communications, education, and incentives energy around that one thing? I can already envision the debates over which thing should be the one thing approach to climate, but as one of the masters of marketing Al Ries once said, “the essence of positioning is sacrifice”. Climate science would point people who eat animal products to their diet first and foremost, but globally there are large populations who don’t eat red meat. Reducing food waste would be up there, although a lot of that occurs in the supply chain and feels less manageable by individuals. Fossil fuel usage is pretty universal and would absolutely be a contender. Or maybe it’s more positive with a “Go Electric” spin.

Once there is alignment on “the one thing”, the focus can turn to getting everyone on the planet to hear this message regularly and be motivated to act. Consortiums like Brands for Good can bring in the brands with marketing heft so that one thing can permeate what they do. Leverage the UN to get governments on board, especially those with climate commitments. Get kids involved. Solicit media outlets for PSA slots/ads. With a “one thing” to focus on, creative geniuses can come up with the best Tiktoks, posts, tweets, ads, games, rewards and incentives to inspire action.

Of course there will be those who don’t like what gets focused on because it hurts their business. If you sell oil or gas or beef and the entire population of the planet is being told not to use your product, you will be ticked off. I get it. I would just encourage anyone who relies on oil or gas or beef to be prepared that this is likely coming anyway, coordinated or not. And a reminder that you are actually in the business of helping people get places or staying warm/cool or having a tasty, filling meal. Figure out a low carbon way to do that and you are set up well for the transformation that’s coming.


So until we have that global movement,  I leave all of you with just one question. What, now, will be your one thing?

Quote of the Week:  “It is not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it is that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.”

Gary Keller

Published April 29th, 2022 as part of Saturday Spark by Susan Hunt Stevens 

What is Saturday Spark? | Last Week’s Saturday Spark: Why Every Day Needs to Be Earth Day

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