Systems change, Multisolving, and the power to change direction

by | September 10, 2021

I think you are really going to enjoy listening to our latest podcast guest, Dr. Elizabeth Sawin. She’s brilliant, thoughtful, and has been working on climate for decades. In my notes from re-watching our conversation, I jotted down “a beautiful mind”.

But before diving in, I just want to thank my wonderful grandmother and her friend Liz for connecting me with Beth and helping to share her wisdom with everyone. Y’all rock 🙂

Beth is the Co-founder and co-director at Climate Interactive which is a nonprofit think tank that specializes in making science-based tools to help people understand what actions are best for addressing the biggest challenges we face. Before Climate Interactive, Beth was a Program Director at the Sustainability Institute where she worked at the intersection of system dynamics and sustainability for 13 years.

I’ve been following Beth on Twitter for some time as she’s a deep-thinking leader in the climate space. I believe her background in system dynamics leads to analyses and perspectives that are critical to turning this ship around.

(Fun fact: Beth’s writing on the ’emissions gap’ and the ‘power to change direction gap’ so clearly articulated a cornerstone of Crowdsourcing Sustainability’s theory of change that I ended up quoting her in it!)

In the following interview with Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, we talk about systems change, Climate Interactive’s influence on UN climate conference negotiations, multisolving, the importance of building relationships and networks, the emissions gap, cultural narratives & paradigms, and lots of great advice for folks on their climate journeys!

As always, I’ll share some key takeaways and quotes from our conversation below, but it’s impossible to do this wide-ranging conversation justice. I hope you’ll check out the real thing!


0:00 Intro.

1:30 Beth’s climate journey.

6:40 How much the climate space has changed over the decades.

11:00 What Climate Interactive is, how it got started, and their pivotal role at the UN climate conferences.

15:40 What it’s like to be at/play a crucial role at COP, influencing government leaders.

23:15 How framing, short-term thinking, & not seeing the full picture has held back action.

28:00 Multisolving, solidarity, and core benefits vs. co-benefits.

34:00 Climate movement needs a strategy around funding a broad, diverse, and interconnected movement – this starts with building relationships.

38:45 Advice on how to accelerate multisolving where you live and work.

43:40 What the emissions gap is and how to start closing it faster. And why Beth is dedicating the rest of her career to strengthening relationships and building networks.

52:40 Systems thinking: climate change is a symptom of a giant misunderstanding about who we are and what we’re a part of. Partnership vs. domination paradigms.

57:45 Society’s narrative & human nature. Who is “we”?

1:02:00 Advice for people who are just starting their climate journeys.

1:05:35 Advice on how to find a mentor.

1:08:40 How Beth takes care of herself and where she finds strength.

1:12:10 Thoughts on building networks and strengthening relationships.

1:17:10 Defining systems change, systems dynamics, and why they matter.

1:20:40 Beth’s book recommendation and final message to listeners.

Key Takeaways

“Even in the short term, it’s a win for the whole system to get off fossil fuels.”

This has been framed the wrong way for a long time. People have thought about it as the ‘costs of action today for some future benefit’. But even in the near term, the benefits of action today outweigh the costs if you look at it comprehensively.

Beth’s advice for people who are just starting their climate journeys

  1. Don’t go it alone.
  2. Climate touches everything. So stick to what you’re good at and what you love.
  3. Honor your difficult feelings. You’re an animal whose life support system is in danger. It would be really weird to not be afraid, or to not be furious about that. There’s intelligence in those feelings, feel them, but don’t let them paralyze. You let them move through and take them as information.
  4. Hang on to the possibility that we may be closer to transformation than we realize. Just keep going because you really don’t know.

Systems Change

“A system is a collection of objects or parts whose behavior is created by their interconnection…Systems change is often about changing the interconnections.”

“Systems emerge from the shared beliefs and values and assumptions of the people within them…sometimes systems change the most, when the beliefs of the people within the system change.”

If you change information flows, laws, rules, norms, or beliefs, you’re on the path to systems change.

Multisolving: what it is & how to start doing it where you live and work

“Multisolving is when you can make a single investment or policy or action that addresses multiple problems at the same time.”

“Don’t break problems down into smaller parts. Some problems get easier to solve when you bundle them together.”

Doing so combines core benefits and co-benefits instead of keeping them separate or pitting them against each other. Multisolving is a path to helping more people, increasing solidarity, and strengthening the climate movement.

It means saying, “I care as much about your kid with asthma, as I do about the hundred-year climate future.”

“Imagine a movement, truly united around all of the places fossil fuels cause suffering. That’s a pretty powerful movement and it’s exciting to watch it grow around the world.”

Beth’s advice on how to start multisolving:

  1. Look around for the other problems that intersect with the problem you are most passionate about. Who else is suffering from this? Listen to these people and their problems. What do things look like through their eyes?
  2. Be a learner. Don’t be attached to being an expert.
  3. Start small and iterate. There’s no right way to start. Just start.
  4. Measure the baseline and how it changes over time. Document all the benefits, including unexpected ones.

Partnership > Domination

“CO2 and climate impacts are symptoms of a great misunderstanding of who we are. And what we are a part of, they’re a misunderstanding of how the planet works. They’re a misunderstanding of how to have good human lives together.”

“There’s a pattern of similarity between how we treat the earth and how we treat certain groups of people. What are root causes that could explain misogyny, racism, and climate change? I come to the domination paradigm…that the way to be safe is to have power over the earth or other people…The way we actually are safe is by being in relationship, by caring for each other, working together, and having responsibility to each other…Step out of the domination paradigm and work in a partnership paradigm.”

Every investment decision is a moment of opportunity. And why strong networks are key to systemic change.

“Part of what makes this problem feel overwhelming is how many billion automobiles there are – how many thousand coal-fired power plants there are…but each of those investment decisions is a moment of opportunity…what happens at each of those points – that’s what locks in the future.

And it could lock in a high carbon, very risky future. Or it could lock in a lower carbon, potentially more equitable and healthier future.

And so where multisolving connects with that – and where relationships and networks connect with that is what happens at each of those decision points. You know, is it a new highway or is it public transportation infrastructure for everybody? That will be influenced by who shows up for that city council meeting, that vote, that election.

The vision of multi-solving is that we’ve pre-built or pre-grown such healthy webs of relationship across all the different areas that will be impacted by that decision, that would show up with the power to make the good decision for the long term.”

Final Thoughts

I’ll leave you with Beth’s final words of wisdom:

“I think people should trust themselves. I think if you feel alarmed you should trust that.
It’s hard when it looks like the powers that be are not as alarmed as you are – it’s hard to have confidence.
But I think at this point you can trust what you’re sensing and act on it with others.” – Beth Sawin

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