Climate Change

Five Big Ideas from Aspen Ideas: Climate 2024

May 16, 2024  • Shivali Shankar

Aspen Ideas: Climate, the Aspen Institute’s primary climate convening, took place for the third time on 11-13 March 2024 in Miami Beach. 

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Jason Grumet, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, shared these words at Aspen Ideas: Climate to describe this feeling of working on complex climate issues amidst a deluge of opposing ideas.

He shared, for example, that 2023 was the best year for renewable power ever, with 34 gigawatts of renewable energy put on the grid in the U.S. And yet, we are moving at one-third of the pace necessary to adequately address the climate crisis. Both ideas, while opposing, are important to hold on to: we have made more progress than ever before, but not nearly enough to solve the many problems at hand. We must remain optimistic, but we have a long way to go.

During Aspen Ideas: Climate, many instances of such opposing ideas were presented, challenging participants to grapple with the realities of the climate crisis and still choose the solutions-oriented path forward. Here are five of those big, and often opposing, ideas from the event in Miami Beach, and the solutions, collaborations, and further questions they’ve left us with in the weeks that have followed.

1. Climate messaging should remain positive while maintaining its nuance.

According to Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, “69% of people would give 1% of their income to climate action if asked.” Dr. Hayhoe used this statistic to reinforce that so-called “climate deniers” are far outnumbered by those who accept the impacts of climate change and are willing to act, but feel dissuaded by “doom and gloom” climate messaging. She suggested that we focus on motivating this 69%, and tell them a different – positive – story, rather than only trying to reach a small pocket of climate deniers.

Framing around positivity over fear is key, she cautioned. “The more climate solutions focus on loss – give up your meat, skip your vacations, get rid of your truck, reconsider your future children – the more unappealing they will appear.” Effective climate messaging should move away from this guilt and shame, and away from individuals’ impact on the environment, and instead towards the systemic change that is possible, and is already underway in many cases.

Author Lily Brooks-Dalton on a climate fiction panel, shared how novels can offer another avenue to communicate around climate – in a more accessible way. By incorporating climate more subtly as a theme into their writing, she explained how authors can engage a wider base of readers and link the emotional experience of climate anxiety with the intellectual details of the real-world crisis, without doing so in a debilitating way. Hence, they also warned against the same crippling fear which only paralyzes action that Dr. Hayhoe highlighted.

On a different panel, climate journalists offered a nuanced counterpoint to entirely positive climate messaging, citing the celebratory approach the media has taken towards covering the clean energy transition. If positive messaging is vital, nuance is also key in addressing the intersectional ramifications of clean hydrogen and fossil fuel phase-outs on frontline communities, for example. Editor at Large of Atmos Magazine, Yessenia Funes, raised this example to encourage climate journalists to take a critical, investigative look at who is being affected by the clean energy transition so that readers get a complete understanding of climate stories.

In holding these opposing ideas, speakers encouraged climate communicators to maintain this positivity in their messaging, whether it be the news or novels, without obscuring the realities of the warming planet and what the consequences of the clean energy transition will entail.

2. Indigenous & intergenerational leaders are key forces in shaping our climate response, yet their voices are often excluded.

Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, described co-stewardship models for conservation as a means to ensure indigenous knowledge is embedded in landscape management, and tribal voices and knowledge are centered in climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Secretary Haaland highlighted this shared management and decision-making strategy as a core component of the federal government’s efforts to preserve ancestral homelands and fulfill trust and treaty obligations to tribes.

In a Q&A with indigenous youth activists, Talia Davis and Wambli Quintana, the importance of intergenerational leadership also took center-stage, with Secretary Haaland detailing the launch of the Indian Youth Service Corp which provides meaningful education, employment, and training opportunities to indigenous youth through diverse conservation projects on public and tribal lands. These projects range from Bison and Lakota language revitalization in South Dakota to the restoration of indigenous food systems in New Mexico.

In a conversation on education for intergenerational climate justice, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Michelle Kang, described schools as a force to develop the young leaders who, equipped with knowledge around the climate crisis, will be activated to lead. Kang also highlighted the need to strengthen educational infrastructure to withstand climate impacts so that they can remain these sources of learning. 

With rising climate anxiety amongst youth today, youth climate activist, Shiva Rajbhandari, also shared the unique perspective students can bring to decision-making tables as climate leaders and organizers. Much like indigenous leaders who bring a wealth of knowledge to conservation and energy conversations, involving students at policymaking levels brings not only new and varied perspectives, it builds trust where it may have otherwise been eroded.

3. Resilience is being built into critical infrastructure and informing city and heat planning in many places, and yet much more remains to be done to ensure these lessons are shared as extreme weather intensifies.

Chief Heat Officer of Miami-Dade County, Jane Gilbert, shared a recent amendment to the Florida Building Code which mandates all large, commercial low-slope roofs in Miami-Dade install ‘cool roofs’ to reflect sunlight, reducing air conditioning energy loads by up to 20%. They have also commissioned tree planting projects in urban heat islands and around school districts to further reduce cooling requirements by another 30% – offering a model for other cities to follow.

In addition to passive cooling techniques, Watsco Ventures Director, Ivan Rapin-Smith highlighted the importance of tax rebates from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and other state incentives to bring down the costs of ACs ($12,000 in the U.S.) to ensure more equitable access as heat waves increase. Incorporating education resources around these credits into technician training programs would equip technicians with the knowledge to break down affordability and choices for their customers.

In building coastal resilience, the Mayor of Jacksonville, Donna Deegan, announced the development of the first city-level compound flood model in the U.S. which will give Jacksonville the clearest picture of flood risks down to the block or street level, even predicting how long and to what extent a road will flood. This will put the city in the best position to make informed, capital planning and emergency decisions in real time, and provide other coastal cities facing increased extreme weather with a suitable model forward.

Peter Malinowski, CEO of the Billion Oyster Project, also explained his vision for oyster reef restoration as resilience infrastructure in New York City, where oyster reefs play a vital role in breaking waves and protecting the shore from extreme weather events. Live oyster colonies on typical break waters also provide a more dynamic ecological habitat for aquatic wildlife and offer New York waterfront communities, school districts, and others an opportunity to engage directly with a climate solution in their backyards.

4. Climate solutions offer economic opportunity, locally and globally, if and when they are effectively shared.

The energy transition offers an even greater opportunity to be intentional and ambitious about advancing equitable economic outcomes, in the form of job opportunities, shared ownership, and other mechanisms, for households and communities. In a session on sharing the wealth of the energy transition led by Ida Rademacher, Vice President and Executive Director of Aspen’s Financial Security Program, panelists discussed building a muscle that helps us think about climate solutions as a means towards shared ownership in and a sense of responsibility for the green economy. Elemental Accelerator Vice President, Mark Chambers, described the many avenues for partnering intentionally and locally to engage communities in these economic opportunities, through shared ownership models of energy assets, for example.

On a macroeconomic level, White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Clean Energy Innovation and Implementation, Kristina Costa, highlighted the Justice 40 Initiative, which seeks to ensure that at least 40% of federal investments from the IRA go to low-income and disadvantaged communities that have been historically disinvested in and overburdened by pollution. Former EPA head and Co-Chair of America is All In, Gina McCarthy, also underlined the U.S. obligation to provide resources and sustainable economic tools to the countries that have been impacted by the greenhouse gas emissions of the developed world.

Special Advisor to Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Motley, Dr. Pepukaye Bardouille, also emphasized the potential for other countries to learn from the economic opportunities embedded within the IRA, if the U.S. can better package and share these lessons. In this conversation, Dr. Zainab Usman, Senior Fellow and Founding Director, Africa Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also shared that the African continent receives only 3% of total clean energy investments and the enormous opportunity for economic growth if investment were to grow.

5. Tech-tonic shifts are developing, but they may require unlikely collaborations.

Jaime Beard, Founder of Project InnerSpace, made a compelling case for geothermal energy as not only a scalable clean energy solution but also an opportunity to form hard-to-build alliances between the fossil fuel industry and environmental groups. The global oil and natural gas industry produces 70,000 wells per year and for decades, enormous amounts of capital investment and technological development have gone into drilling techniques for procuring this oil and natural gas. However, if we drill for geothermal energy at the rate we currently drill for oil and gas and use this existing infrastructure, by 2050, up to 77% of global electricity demand and over 100% of global demand for heat could be supplied by geothermal energy. This approach also brings an all-hands-on-deck approach to the clean energy transition, with startup companies like Fervo Energy and Sage Geosystems, working alongside many oil and natural gas veterans to aid the technology transfer in this space.

These ideas and the many more presented during Aspen Ideas: Climate make evident that if challenges are plentiful, so are creative solutions, and we can hold these ideas at the same time and choose optimism, with a dash of realism. We might even go one step further than Fitzgerald’s challenge – why hold only two opposing ideas in mind, when we can hold many? Why go all in for one climate solution, when there are a multitude?