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Using Public Relations to Fight Climate Change and Build a New Energy System

Called the "Robin Hood of public relations" by The National Journal, and named "one of the 100 most influential PR people of the 20th Century" by PR Week, David Fenton has for over three decades worked to create public relations campaigns for the environment, public health, international development, and human rights. His firm, FENTON, now has 80 employees, all working to accelerate progress through powerful issue campaigns.

Just yesterday, David published a powerful open letter, addressed to the CEO of Chevron, in which he suggested that “sticking with fossil energy business as probably the worst business mistake ever made.”

I recently had a chance to speak with David about communicating about climate change, the evolving nature of investment, and how Mosaic can best position itself as a company and an agent of change. 

What has been the evolution of climate communications? 

In the 90s, the effort was to teach people the basic science, and during the early 2000s there was bipartisan movement on the issue, and when Obama won, the fossil fuel industry went all in on climate denial and was determined to prevent a climate bill from going through Congress and getting a deal in Copenhagen. And the fossil fuel interests won.

They won by making the case that we would damage the economy by addressing climate, which is ironic because the only way to not hurt the economy is to do something on climate — as we’ve seen with mega-droughts in the Midwest, wildfires in the west, $50 billion in damages from Hurricane Sandy, to name just a few of the costly impacts tied to climate change this year. The whole thing is upside down. The people who are wrecking the economy are making the case that reforming energy will cause economic harm.

As we’ve seen historically, major investments in infrastructure trigger economic prosperity — you can go back to Roman times and the Interstate Highway System in the U.S. Infrastructure investment always pays off. We have to rebuild our whole energy economy and this represents one of the biggest engines of economic growth we have. We can’t afford not to do it. We could end the recession in 90 days by putting people to work retrofitting homes and businesses and painting roofs white. With modest government loan guarantees, we could leverage private capital to pay for it.

What public goals related to climate — from politicians, companies or advocacy organizations — have been most inspiring to the public?

Frankly, there hasn’t been enough inspiration, but public support for clean energy is very high and very bipartisan. I’m inspired by the Keystone Pipeline fight, by what Artists Against Fracking is doing to bring a cultural element into this work.

We’re still pretty invisible. We’re not succeeding. We don’t do enough to ensure that the basics of climate are known. If we could just get everyone to agree on that, it would help enormously in the long term.

It’s not salient or urgent for most people yet. There’s a funny debate in the climate community from some people who say we shouldn’t talk about climate. I think that’s crazy. We’ll never do the things we need to do in time without fully recognizing the threat of climate change. We need to combine the danger with some great stories of hope. The race is on.

How has the growth of the clean energy industry changed communications on climate?

Not enough. You can put solar on your roof in 20 states for no money down, save money on energy bills and get a price guarantee [via a solar lease]. Most reporters are surprised to hear it, don’t believe it. These opportunities haven’t changed the public narrative on climate and energy. We need to do a much better job showing people that climate solutions are here now.

How does Mosaic position itself in this environment? 

We do have a base of people who are convinced — 10 percent of the public — and Mosaic can give them something to do and aggregate funds.

If one person puts up solar, it doesn’t do much. But when 3 to 4 percent of a community does it, there’s a kind of tipping point that can trigger much broader changes. Clean energy is contagious. Mosaic could accelerate that tipping point.

How do you personally invest?

I’ve put my savings into ethically screened investments for 30 years. Some have done well, some didn’t do as well. Robert Zevin and Associates manages my investments.

This post is part of a series of conversations with leaders and innovators who are working to reinvent the global economy and energy system. For more, see Pavan Sukhdev on the future of the corporation, Juliet Schor on the New Economy, Jed Emerson on impact investing, and Maura Cowley and Jeff Mann on running the Energy Action Coalition

Billy Parish is co-founder and president of Solar Mosaic, a solar investment platform, and co-author of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money & Community in a Changing World. In 2002, he dropped out of Yale to found the Energy Action Coalition and grew it into the largest youth advocacy organization in the world working on the climate crisis. A serial social entrepreneur, Parish has helped launch dozens of clean energy, youth, and green jobs related companies and organizations and has been honored as a Rolling Stone magazine “Climate Hero,” an Utne Reader “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” was elected as a Fellow by Ashoka, the global association of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife and two daughters.

This article was originally published on and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Bullhorn via Shutterstock

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