Climate change: It’s getting personal

Out of the six billion-or-so people on the planet, two out of three probably aren’t in much of a position to do anything about it right now. They’re either too busy trying to get their next meal together, or scratching a living off a few dollars or less a day. We’re talking climate change, and as citizens of the developed world we’re being told more and more that we should take our share of responsibility and act. After all, we’re the lucky ones who can.

In the UK, climate change is top of the agenda. I’ve been back only a week and the newspapers are full of adverts and government advice on how we, as consumers, should be doing our bit. We have an incredibly important role to play, yet many of us still don’t yet seem to realise it. Why aren’t we getting the message? Is asking people to walk the short distance to a local shop really such a problem? Or to not leave things on standby? Or to turn the heating down a notch or two and put a jumper on? On the plus side people at least seem more aware of climate change. But getting them to take that next step and change their habits seems, for many, to be an “ask too far”.

In an attempt to speed them along, Christian Aid have recently been running some hard hitting newspaper campaigns in the UK (I’m not sure if they’re doing the same in the US). At the same time, interest continues to grow in devices such as “standby savers”, which will do what most consumers appear resistant to do and kill the power to their beloved consumer devices when they’re not being used. As a recent Economist article explains:

“Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle – in standby mode – more than 99% of the time. And they are not alone. Many other devices, such as televisions, DVD players, stereos and computers also spend much of their lives in standby mode, collectively consuming a huge amount of energy”

If doing something as simple as unplugging things at the wall at night reduces energy consumption in the home by as much as 20%, why are so few people doing it? Maybe breaking the global population down into segments may help us understand behaviourally why some people may or may not be interested – or care – about the climate change issue.

Here’s a very rough attempt for starters:

We start with a world population of: 6 billion
We deduct those unable to engage for economic reasons, leaving us with: 2 billion
We deduct those who don’t believe climate change is happening, leaving: 1 billion
We deduct those who believe in it but don’t think it’s ‘our’ doing, leaving: 600 million
We deduct those who believe it’s ‘our’ doing but not causing problems: 450 million
Deduct those who think it’s ‘our’ doing and a problem, but don’t care: 375 million
Deduct those who think it’s ‘our’ doing and a problem, but feel helpless: 300 million

On the basis of these very, very rough figures, it looks as though only 300 million people, or approximately 5% of the total world population, would actually be willing or able to change their behavioural habits based on the climate change issue. For the environmentalists, this segment would be classed as “in the bag”, so-to-speak. We have a number of segments above this hardcore group, and these are the ones needing to be targeted by advertising and educational campaigns. Clearly each segment would require a different ‘marketing’ approach based on a range of unique drivers for their non-engagement, and maybe this is what’s been missing.

I wonder if anyone is working on this?

Technology-aided aid

I’m always interested in innovative ways of getting aid directly to those who need it in the most timely and efficient manner possible. Kiva deals beautifully with one aspect of this – linking lenders in the ‘developed’ world with borrowers in ‘developing’ countries. But when it comes to financial aid to many of the rural poor – the man or woman on the street, so-to-speak – no mechanism exists (I don’t count giving to charity as being a direct donation, by the way). Not only is it a technical challenge to facilitate a direct donation (although mobile payments will soon unlock that particular door) there are other trickier issues, such as what we know about these individuals, or their needs and particular circumstances.

In times of famine or hardship, the typical Western response is to send over plane-loads of food aid. Although this might seem like the most logical thing to do, often it overlooks the chief cause of the famine. Lack of food generally comes below politics, political instability, access to resources and markets, and civil conflict in the famine equation. In other words, it’s rarely about a ‘simple’ lack of food. And flooding a country with food aid creates its own problems, from feeding the militia in conflict situations to destroying what’s left of the local and national agricultural market systems.

So, is there an alternative? Well, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) seems to think so, and they’ve just started a $3 million pilot project to prove it. They’ll be providing cash payments instead of food to tens of thousands of hungry people in northern Malawi. You can’t get more direct than that. Although the full impact – and effectiveness – of the program won’t be known for some time, the signs look good. As with many microfinance projects in developing countries, women are the main recipients of the cash, and many take their money and head straight to local markets to buy food. This keeps the local economy moving and the agriculture sector bouyant. That’s one problem solved, and two avoided, on my count.

(Incidentally, direct payments are nothing new in the conservation world. They’ve been tried for some years with varying degrees of success. The process is pretty much the same – give the conservation dollars directly to the people living in the conservation area, and encourage them to help preserve their environment through their pockets. I’ve always quite liked the concept, but appreciate how controversial it is. A PDF paper on conservation direct payments is available here).

Meanwhile, back in Malawi, you may be wondering what this project has to do with technology. Well, administering a system where piles of cash are handed out to tens of thousands of naturally very willing recipients needs to be effectively managed and controlled. So, each of the villagers in the scheme are fingerprinted, and their details held on a smart card which they present at pay-out.

The whole idea of making direct payments is appealing to both the donor and the recipient. If it works it could take hold as an entirely new model for delivering aid, providing it is scalable. The fact that a simple and tested technology has proved to be a key enabler makes it all the more interesting, to me at least.