Miami Beach, host of the Aspen Ideas:climate conference. (Photo by Antonio Cuellar via Pexels.)

By Mark Lannaman

In March, I attended the second-ever Aspen Ideas: Climate conference in Miami Beach, Fla. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had this year, and there are few places in the U.S. where the effects of climate change can be seen so easily than in the Miami area. 

When I got to the airport, I ordered an Uber. The first question my driver asked me was why I was in town. I told him I was here for a conference on climate change.

“You believe in all that stuff?” he asked me. I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’d be lying. Disappointed, sure, but not surprised. Many people still don’t believe in climate change, or at least believe it’s more natural than we’re led to believe. A problem of bad communication? Perhaps.

Still, I found that instead of arguing with him, it was much more effective to meet him halfway. After some more conversation on my position, he admitted that being a lifelong Miami resident he has seen water levels rise to points he would never have seen as a child. He even admitted he believes the glaciers are melting. Why, then, was he having a hard time getting on board with the subject matter?

Much of it, he told me, had to deal with greenwashing. He didn’t use that exact term, but everything he was getting at from a standpoint of climate change — and the response to it in the form of sustainability — being “in fashion” led him to be skeptical. He told me he sees so many industries moving to capitalize on this wave of sustainability.

For a little more context greenwashing is when companies use sustainability as a marketing strategy without actually doing much in terms of actual sustainability To my driver’s point, he’s right that a lot of companies have engaged in this. I hear the same buzzwords used again and again: sustainable, resilient, environmentally conscious, green-thinking, etc. Half the time I’m not entirely convinced people know what these words mean in full context. But for better or worse, the sustainability wave is fueled by all kinds of companies in every sector, along with governments at every level, getting on board with the idea of sustainability. 

Green makes green

“Sustainability wave” may not be the right term for this new era society finds itself in, but the term will suffice for lack of a better one. I should also note sustainability encompasses a lot more than simply concepts relating to nature and going green, but given the nature of the conference focusing on climate and not every facet of sustainability, that will be my focus as well. In the past few decades, the idea of sustainability has gained a lot of traction. Though the concept of sustainability can be traced back decades — with many referencing the Brundtland Report in 1987 as the advent of the idea of sustainability — it has truly become a household concept in the last few years. 

Now, seemingly every state, government, business and university has a sustainability person or team, making sure they hit goals set for themselves — or at the very least, market themselves as being planet-conscious. You’ve probably seen the goals of decarbonizing by 2030 or 2050, ensuring we mitigate global warming to only two degrees Celsius, decarbonize multiple sectors and lower carbon emissions.

At the very least, you’ve probably seen and likely taken part in the recycling campaign — which is great in concept but in actuality sits at about an 8.7 percent recycling rate according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, less than ideal. 

Regardless of this, the sustainability wave that we see before us feels like it can have a great impact. I say that not because we are inching towards potential disaster or our moral compasses as society has shifted (though I think it has), but simply because of one important factor: sustainability is “in.” Green —the color often attached to sustainability for its strong ties with the environmental movement — makes green —that piece of tender with the dead presidents on it. 

Investments in sustainability are no longer a financial pitfall. This can be attributed to a number of factors — tighter regulations making the sustainable choice the more cost-effective choice in avoiding fines, more federal investments like the Inflation Reduction Act offering tax breaks and other financial incentives to “go green”, and perhaps a bit of pure eco-consciousness on behalf of corporations. Now, sustainable investments are seemingly investments in the future. Investing in clean energy technology like solar panels or electric cars is not usually thought of as solely a short-term investment, but a long-term one that will continually grow and compound. Building buildings smarter and more efficiently are said to be more cost-effective in the long run. Longstanding businesses anywhere from Coca-Cola to BP are embracing the sustainability wave and if nothing else acknowledging it as a marketing tactic. 

Entire companies are being founded — and sustained — off of a model that their service or product is the changemaker, the trailblazer, the disrupter of its industry that conventionally has not been the most sustainable or eco-friendly. 

Whether it’s faux plastic straws, plant-based meat that contributes less total emissions than real meat and saves an animal, building smarter and greener commercial buildings in an industry that accounts for about 40 percent of global carbon emissions, cutting out the middle-man to cut transportation and emissions with vertical farms, sourcing materials in a fairer way like many coffee shops, reintroducing a familiar product made with a plastic substitute like paper-based water bottles or bamboo straws, using hydroponics to grow the same amount of food with less water— it all amounts to sustainability, and much of it can now only be sustained and compete with its traditional counterparts because green makes green.

What I saw in Miami Beach was new companies — companies with no guarantee of success, but with a fighting chance in an industry where they wouldn’t even be considered decades ago. These companies, perhaps, inspire longstanding traditional companies to “go green” too so as not to become the next Blockbuster — too stuck in their ways to see the future and consequently being left in the past.

Preaching to the choir

One of the best and worst things about a conference like this is that you attract all kinds of people working in the broad field of sustainability, many trying to ensure we mitigate climate change disasters or simply network.

It was a wonderful feeling to be in a space with so many people who all believe climate change is real and are taking different approaches to addressing it. That being said, I didn’t expect to have my mind blown with new information because, frankly, I believe in climate change. I’d be shocked if anyone who went out of their way to attend the conference didn’t. 

I’ve heard those say that temperature fluctuations are normal for the Earth. This is true, however, this misses the time variable that’s key to what we refer to as climate change — and not just global warming. If someone goes to bed fine and wakes up with a 100-degree fever, generally we’d say that person is sick. In the same way, with the Earth’s temperature rising this quickly relative to its lifetime, we can consider global warming to be like a fever for the planet. Like any sick person that we love, we should try and help them and get them medicine before things take a turn for the worse. If you understood this analogy, congratulations. This is climate change. 

Like I said, it was wonderful to be in a space where this is understood and amongst individuals who wanted to address it. The problem is that the facts of climate change must be heard by those who are uninformed. I don’t even advocate wasting energy trying to convert staunch oppositionists; the layman, however, must be informed. This is key to creating substantial and true change. The equivalent of the person who doesn’t vote because it doesn’t make a difference or the one who simply can’t be bothered; that is who must be reached.

This is why I was so excited to see Bill Nye as a guest speaker at the conference. Not just because, well, he’s Bill Nye, but because he made a career as a scientific communicator. It’s no secret that “the media” is not the most trusted entity at the moment. There’s been a saturation of media professionals, but that mixed with poor media literacy, changing internet conventions and norms, journalists figuring out our place within all this, misinformation and information that some people call false but others true (i.e. opinions presented as moral rights) it has been a challenge to relay all the important and real things happening around the world.

However, it’s critical that we preach to those not in the choir. If we cannot help the average person understand at least at a local level what is happening and why it is important, we, not only journalists but environmental professionals in general, have failed. 

Innovation from desperation

One of my favorite things about humans is that we can do some of our best work when our backs are against the wall. When we need to get creative, we continue to invest and innovate to avoid disaster. At the conference, I was able to learn from so many companies innovating across dozens of sectors, all with the idea of slowing climate change in mind. It was inspiring to see the many ways we can tackle climate change, and how they all held merit in their own fields.

True, much of this innovation can be a result of this sustainability wave offering an economic opportunity. Let me reiterate: There is money to be made in “going green”, and that’s why so much of it is taking off in recent years. But undeniably, many of the products and companies I saw could not exist without their central tenant that catalyzed the business in the first place — the innovative component, if you will. 

Electric cars were realized long before Elon Musk and Tesla became a household names. Their advancement in the batteries of these cars, though, helped push forward the electric car movement overall. All throughout history, inventions and innovations are created in times of peril and out of necessity. If we can communicate the necessity for innovation now, we will inspire those able to help us take steps forward toward the innovations that can benefit so many.

Aspen Ideas: Climate in Miami Beach 2023 was memorable for all the right reasons, and left me feeling hopeful in the face of a global issue that seems so unfathomably large. I hope more spaces around such a universal topic can be made, and be accessible to all kinds of people, experts or not. Climate change is often projected to affect some of the poorest regions the most, which are also often the places that contribute the least to the problems. 

We must ensure that we are listening to people from every place and experience and learning what we can from each other. Tackling an issue of this proportion will be a group effort like never before seen, and only when we lean into the best parts of everyone will we make substantial progress.

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