Empathy is a climate solution

By Michael Thomas

Empathy is a climate solution

First off, I want to welcome the ~500 of you that signed up for the Carbon Switch newsletter over the last few days.

I’m Michael and every week-ish I write a story about climate solutions. The theme of this newsletter is what I call “both/and climate action.” I believe that in order to prevent a climate disaster, we need all kinds of solutions and all kinds of perspectives. And we can’t do it without a combination of individual and collective action. 

If you want to learn more about what I’m trying to build, check out the 2021 Year in Review article I wrote a few weeks ago.

Alright with that, let’s get into it. 

A wild weekend

On Thursday afternoon of last week, I put the finishing touches on a story about gas stoves that I had been working on for months. If I’m honest, I didn’t feel great about the piece. When I read through it one last time, I felt like it was too dense, technical, and niche. My goal was to distill dozens of scientific studies into simple takeaways. And I felt like I failed to do that.

Nonetheless, I hit publish, wrote a quick thread about it on Twitter, and went out to meet a friend. When I got back, my wife asked me how the story went and I shared my frustrations.

Then I opened Twitter and was inundated by thousands of notifications. 

Every second dozens of new retweets and replies streamed in. Many people said they were shocked by the data. One person summed up the general consensus with this comment: “Wow. I was convinced I was going to get a gas stove. Not after reading this!”

For the next 48 hours I got dozens of notifications every minute. By the end of the weekend about 4,000 people — everyone from influencers to policymakers — shared the post. According to Twitter it reached 4 million people. 

It was by far the most successful story I’ve published on Carbon Switch in terms of impact and reach. 

Lessons in electrification

Looking back on the story and post, I see an important lesson: People care a lot more about their health than cutting carbon or saving energy.

In fact, people care about many things more than they care about cutting carbon or saving energy. When they think about replacing their furnace they aren’t thinking about the efficiency of the heating system or the carbon intensity of the grid. They’re thinking about whether it’ll be a consistent and comfortable temperature in their home. They’re thinking about the upfront cost of the system and what else that money could buy them.

Many climatetech companies learn this the hard way by spending years pitching carbon and energy savings, before actually talking to and building empathy with their customers.

Sealed, a home electrification company, is an example of one such company. If you take a look at some of their earliest messaging, you’ll notice it’s all about energy savings. What will you get by signing up for Sealed? $18 per month of energy savings.

In the world of spreadsheets and business plans, $18 per month of savings looks great. There are 12 months in a year and heating systems last 15 years, so suddenly $18 per month is $3,240 of lifetime savings. Now we’re talking.

But people’s minds don’t work like spreadsheets. We’re emotional creatures driven by our hopes and fears, simultaneously altruistic and frustratingly selfish. And in these minds, energy savings are rarely a priority.

Some companies and climate leaders eventually learn this. Sealed certainly did. Just take a look at their website today.

Now they lead with a very different problem: uneven temperatures in the home. They pitch health, comfort, and then energy-efficiency. In short, Sealed learned to empathize with people and meet them where they are.

In a recent interview, Sealed CEO Lauren Salz summed it up like this: “I think if you focus just on the moral imperative, you miss out on a lot of people. It can be very difficult to motivate people to do something for the benefit of the environment, especially in something as personal as their home.”

At Carbon Switch, I am still learning this lesson. Last year I published a series of articles about LED lighting. What was the main focus? Energy savings. In fact, this is true for most content on the website. Most of the guides are in need of an empathy-centered refresh. 

Sometimes meeting people where they are isn’t so straightforward, however. I recently looked at some analytics for our page on the best tankless water heaters. I noticed that the average time a visitor spends on the page was much lower than our other reviews. Then I looked at the top-ranking results for searches like “the best tankless water heater” on Google. All of them featured reviews of natural gas water heaters. Carbon Switch, in our righteous purity, was the outlier that didn’t. As a result we ranked fourth. (For comparison our heat pump water heater reviews and electric water heater reviews rank #1). 

Google’s algorithms are carbon-agnostic and user intent-centered; their goal is to surface what they think people are looking for as quantified by metrics like time on page. And so I had a dilemma: Do I “meet people where they are” and add a review of the most energy efficient natural gas water heater or maintain my all-electric purity. 

For about an hour I agonized over this question. Eventually I decided to add a section on the best natural gas water heaters and surrounded it with reasons to go with an electric water heater. My hope is that it’ll reach would-be natural gas buyers and convince some of them to consider the alternative. But wow was that a hard section to write. 

A few years ago I met with a former U.S. Senator who passed some of the country’s first climate policies. He told me something that I think about a lot. He said, “If we want to pass the policies our planet needs, we need to build a much bigger tent and welcome as many people in as possible.” 

I nodded in agreement. It all seemed so straightforward in my head. But that was in the abstract. In the years since I’ve learned just how difficult it is to follow that advice. I’ve learned that the space between empathy and advocacy is painted gray. 


Alright that’s all for this week! 

If you’re new here, I’d love to hear a bit about your climate journey. What sort of stuff are you working on or thinking about? What’s currently stopping you from doing more?

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