As New York City prepares for another 74 degree November day this week, it's getting harder to remember that warm weather isn't climate. Sadly, the evidence for climate change is overwhelming anyway, along with its calamitous predictions.

Want to change a nation's behavior regarding climate?

Leaders know what will work more than anyone, and not just bringing technology like renewable energy or electric cars to market. Technology is essential, but I mean leadership to drive systemic change. Technology is just one element of that system.

A key leverage point for a system is its goals.

Our current system's goal is growth--GDP growth, which requires population growth, which is unsustainable. People consider alternatives--such as a steady-state economy--impossible, ignoring that perpetual growth doesn't work so we have to develop alternatives.

Sound impossible? We as a culture have changed systems and their underlying beliefs before, so we can do it again. It takes leadership and the business world currently has the most effective leaders.

What has worked: past systemic change


  1. Smoking
  2. Drinking and driving
  3. Wearing seat belts

When I grew up, smoking was common and closer to Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando than a diseased lung.

Now it's the reverse and I don't think I know anyone who smokes even half a pack a day.

When I was young, adults would ask for "one for the road," meaning: "I'm about to drive, please give me alcohol." While too many people still drink and drive today, mainstream society views it as tantamount to murder and people do it far less.

When I was young, telling someone to wear a seat belt who didn't want to would provoke belligerent responses to mind your business. Today, people put them on automatically and expect cars to have them, as part of a full package of safety features. Cost is not an issue.

My lifetime has seen dramatic changes in mainstream behavior and expectations. They happened in different fields, but they worked.

Where things failed: systems we haven't changed

Meanwhile, obesity is soaring, as are diseases of excess, such as diabetes and heart disease, that come with it. So are greenhouse gas emissions.

Why haven't these systems changed?

Our knowledge of the sciences of nutrition, diseases of excess, and the greenhouse effect have increased in that time. We teach more about these subjects than ever too.

The media, schools, and government tell people what to do to prevent the unwanted results, but the nation isn't changing.

Do you also find it curious that where we focus on science and education, we don't get results?

I suggest that we haven't tried to change their goals and underlying beliefs.

By contrast, while you generally know smoking causes cancer and alcohol slows your senses, few know the science behind it, nor did traditional education likely lead many to stop smoking and drinking before driving.

We changed beliefs and goals in these three areas. What we've done before we can do again.

What works

Changing beliefs requires multiple approaches over time.

August's Consumer Reports shares what worked for smoking, which was beyond just technology and education:

The long and robust campaign against tobacco use in the United States set the gold standard for a successful government health initiative. The winning formula involved a combination of bold strategies, including high taxation, public education on the dangers of cigarette use, limits on advertising, and a long, grinding battle to restrict where tobacco can be sold and used.

And the results have been striking: Since 1965 the smoking rate among American adults has dropped from roughly 42 percent to 15 percent in 2015.

To get there, the financial disincentives for using tobacco have become extraordinarily high--in some places, such as New York City, taxes now add up to more than $5, or about half the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

No less significant, though, is that starting in 1971 the tobacco industry grudgingly accepted tough restrictions and bans on advertising in an effort to head off even more draconian measures.

A long, multi-pronged approach of various incentives did it, not mere education. There may have been science at its root, but science rarely motivates people. A comprehensive, systematic approach did.

This description came in the context of fighting obesity, where Consumer Reports also recognized the value of a multi-pronged approach:

"It's important to remember that in public health, there is very rarely a single intervention that works," cautions Jim O'Hara of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which, along with the World Health Organization, strongly endorses sugar-sweetened-beverage taxes in combination with other measures to reduce consumption and prevent obesity for adults and, especially, children. "There has to be a multifaceted approach: education, policy, taxes, and industry behavior," O'Hara says.

What will likely work in global warming

While I support science and technology, I recognize their limitations in systemic change. They got us to understand the problem, but that doesn't mean they alone can solve it.

Widespread behavior change is necessary. What worked in other areas is the most likely to work in global warming: taxes, advertising restrictions, location restrictions, and so on--all based in science, but not expecting scientific results to create behavioral change.

Again quoting Consumer Reports:

Devising ways to combat obesity, experts say, ultimately will require the same kind of enduring dedication and aggressive game plan used on tobacco.

The solution for obesity that they suggest, is the solution for curbing global warming--long-term, aggressive, multi-pronged work.

What will work

What will work is a comprehensive plan involving many systemic approaches, especially changing our beliefs from growth to steady-state.

And we business people and leaders know how to lead people. A call to understand consumer behavior is a call for experts to take responsibility. Scientists got society this far, but systemic leadership will get across the finish line.