Entrepreneurs

This Is What We Did—When Climate Action Is Our Legacy

The climate movement has been strengthened in recent years thanks to the leadership of our youth. Yet, for the first time in our history there are more people over the age of 65 than below 5. How can we bring our elders into this movement? Meet Ashoka Fellow Jim Thompson who he is dedicating his encore career to this challenge.

Corina Murafa: Jim, you spent most of your career creating a culture of positive youth sports across the U.S. Why the sudden transition into climate action?

Jim Thompson: When I stepped down from being CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance, a couple years ago, I took a sabbatical and really started looking at the climate situation. I knew it was bad. But I was stunned by how bad it was, and how quickly things are going to deteriorate. I realized climate is the issue of our time and of all times. And as I read more and more, I began to think as I had with Positive Coaching Alliance, what is the root cause? What is really driving this?

Murafa: What did you discover?

Thompson: I developed a concept: “climate change literacy” which is the opposite of the deadly naïveté so many people have. Climate change literacy has four elements. The first is, how bad the situation is and how quickly it’s getting worse. The second is the potential solutions–and there are lots of them. The third is why those solutions aren’t being implemented, and the role of government inaction. And the fourth is the scale of engagement and mobilization required by our society. Research shows that when 3.5% of the population supports a resistance movement, the chances for that movement being successful go way up. And 3.5% in the United States is about 11.5 million people. To me that doesn’t seem that big, it seems like we should be able to do that. Solidarity is the real super-power and we need to be in solidarity with each other.

Murafa: What keeps you motivated?

Thompson: I have two grandchildren. One is five and one is ten. At some point in my life as they get older, they will ask me a question: “What did you do, Grandpa Jim, to fight climate change as the world was falling down?” And that’s the name of the organization I started: the answer to that question. THIS! Is What We Did. I’m not optimistic. There’s no way we can totally turn this around. There’s no way we can reverse global warming. We live in the stories we tell ourselves about the world. The story we’re in is a car crash. If you’re on a highway bound to have a car crash, the question is: does it do any good to slam on the brakes, if we know we’re going to hit the car? Yes. If you hit that car at 100 miles an hour, versus hitting that car at 70 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour, it could be the difference between billions of people living or dying. This is the story that motivates me.

Murafa: So what is your vision?

Thompson: Many of the people we are involved with at THIS! Is What We Did are older and have grandkids. And so the vision that I’m talking about is that of being able to say to your grandkids: “This is what we did!” Our mission is to break the power of the fossil fuel industry, so that the planet has a chance of surviving. We do that through a compelling educational experience, a welcoming community, and practical actions that people can take right away. We think that people over 50 in particular are an untapped resource for climate action. 

Murafa: How do you go about changing mentalities?

Thompson: First of all, we’re not trying to create a movement. We’re trying to help build it. 350.org, the Climate Reality project, the Sunrise Movement. There are all kinds of things going on. We’re just a small part of that. But we want to be an important part, we want to help the movement get to 3.5% of the population and beyond. One of our first initiatives is a “Move Your Money” initiative out of climate-bad banks. I thought: “Well, this will be easy.” But even people who want to do it, often don’t do it. It’s sticky. It’s hard. It’s complicated. So we take a cohort approach, over a six-week period, we get a bunch of people together who all want to move their money out of these climate-bad banks, into a credit union or a bank that’s not funding the destruction of the planet. We know it works. Action also starts with conversation. So one of the things we’re doing is starting a climate conversation program. 

Murafa: What else is important?

Thompson: It’s what I call the three flows of money: 1) our money to the climate-bad banks, 2) from the climate-bad banks to the fossil fuel industry, and 3) from the fossil fuel industry to politicians. It’s this third flow that keeps governments ineffective about climate change. We’re calling this one “the political poison initiative” and we want to make it so that no politician will want to take money from the fossil fuel industry.

Murafa: How do you talk to a climate denier?

Thompson: The iron rule of climate change is that the people who did the least to cause it suffer the consequences most. So let’s say you’re having a conversation with a very conservative person in North Dakota. You don’t say to that person that the sea levels are rising in Miami or New York City. You talk about the 20 million acres of farmland in the Midwest that were flooded last year, and much of that is never going to be arable again. You ask them if that bothers them. You find that connection, something that they care about that is threatened by climate change. And it’s not that hard, because ultimately, everything we care about is threatened by climate change.

Murafa: How do you move from awareness to action?

Thompson: When I was teaching public management for MBA students at Stanford Business School, I had Dick Lamb, the former Governor of Colorado, as a guest speaker. He talked about the four stages of policy development. The first stage is No Talk, No Action. Nobody’s talking about it, nobody’s doing anything about it. It’s not recognized as a problem yet. The second stage is Talk, No Action. People are starting to talk about it, but not much is happening. And that’s frustrating for activists like you and me. But it’s a stage we have to go through to get to the next stage, which is Talk, Action. At this stage people are talking about the problem and lots of people are starting to act on it. And then the fourth stage is No Talk, Action: you don’t even need to talk about it anymore, because it’s just accepted. With climate change we’re getting deeper into the talk, action stage. Why is Joe Biden talking about being a climate change president? Because he got so much push from a huge group of people. I’m hoping that President Biden will step into this moment: he has the opportunity to be an FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) level leader of this country.

Jim Thompson is the founder of THIS! Is What We Did and Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), for which he was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2004. Jim received an MBA from Stanford where he was Director of the Public Management Program, named during his tenure as the nation’s top non-profit business management program. He has written nine books including: The Double-Goal Coach, Elevating Your Game and The Positive Sports Parent. You can follow Jim on twitter @JimThompson18.

Corina Murafa is co-leading Next Now/Planet & Climate and is also the Director of Ashoka Romania. Prior to joining Ashoka, she advanced long-lasting positive change in Eastern Europe as a public policy expert on energy and sustainability. She has worked for the World Bank, OMV Petrom, Deloitte, national governments and think tanks.

Next Now: The world is better than we think. In pockets across the globe, humans are pioneering and implementing real-life solutions — answers to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Powered by Ashoka, Next Now identifies, supports and lifts up these examples, and the changemakers behind them. From a bird’s eye perspective, we see patterns and frontiers of innovation that show a way to a better future. We weave a community of innovators committed to building it, and share our findings and insights with the world. For more on the future of Planet & Climate, read full series.

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