A positive spiral: changing the climate discourse

Amidst a conversation that focuses on crises, Samuli Hänninen, head of Vaisala Xweather, argues that a more positive approach to tackling environmental issues is the key to meaningful change

Samuli Hanninen Vaisala

The narrative around climate change can often feel like a spiral of doom and gloom – and headlines around continuous decline can make the issue seem insurmountable. While the impact of human activity on the planet should not be understated, Samuli Hänninen, head of Vaisala Xweather, a data platform providing environmental and weather information to businesses, believes that some of the discourse around the issue is counterproductive. 

Those with the power to make meaningful change – including corporations – need to unite with urgency and sincerity to tackle the issue and Hänninen argues that a defeatist attitude may be stifling sustainability innovation. He instead proposes a more balanced dialogue that both recognises the enormity of the global challenge while highlighting progress and offering hope.

Beating the negative spiral

“We usually only talk about negative things and disasters. I don’t think that’s the right way to make change happen, because a lot of actions are then motivated by fear,” Hänninen argues.

He explains that while fear can be a good motivator by making people uncomfortable, it can also lead to stress and even desperation. “There’s a lot of talk about climate anxiety,” he says. “And to me, the challenge is that when you motivate someone with fear, that’s what happens. So I believe much more in positive motivators.”

Hänninen advocates for a shift towards what he calls “a positive spiral of change”, where organisations focus on the individual contributions they can make, rather than getting overwhelmed by the scale of the global issue.

The sustainability and growth of a business are not mutually exclusive

One area of business sustainability where Hänninen believes the conversation can be too negative is around the concept of carbon footprints. He feels that this term can lead organisations to focus too much on consumption and reducing negative impacts rather than coming up with new climate innovations. He challenges leaders to think about and champion their “carbon handprint” too, which he defines as the positive impacts they can have on the planet. What can they create for good? What problem can they actively solve? This kind of attitude, he says, is vital to maintain optimism.

Acknowledging that business leaders will always ultimately care about the bottom line, he adds: “Money can be a positive motivator too. The sustainability and growth of a business are not mutually exclusive. We should always seek growth in a way that is sustainable and we should not make those things compete with each other.”

Putting ideas into practice

How can organisations move from having good intentions and ideas to tangible impact? “Problem-solving starts with identifying a problem, and then the next step is to quantify it,” says Hänninen. “Only after you identify and quantify it, can you start solving it, because then you can determine those actions that have the most impact. So I think it all starts with businesses measuring what is important to them.” 

He adds that organisations need to be able to measure and be recognised for their footprint and the aforementioned “handprint”. “Here, I’m calling for change when companies are measured in different kinds of ESG indexes. It’s always about how much you consume. Nobody ever asks what positive things you do,” he says. Having measurable outcomes around positive change can also help leaders who might worry about being accused of greenwashing when they talk about positive climate impact. 

Hänninen also points out that small, local actions can have a significant global impact, likening this to the butterfly effect. With this in mind, “I would encourage everyone to act more,” he says. “There is nothing too small because, when it comes to the climate and atmosphere, every local activity has a global impact. We only have one planet.” He adds that part of the reframing of the conversation is shifting from viewing climate change as one big insurmountable global problem to a collection of solvable local actions.

He gives the example of weather tracking, which is something Vaisala Xweather offers. By understanding travel conditions and optimising transportation routes accordingly, companies transporting goods can save fuel. It’s a simple, local action, but if companies across the globe adopted this data-driven approach, the impact on emissions would be significant. 

Listen to all those crazy ideas and be willing to fail fast

Another example would be providing weather data to interact with sprinkler systems in hotter climates. Instead of turning on sprinklers on a timer come rain or shine, systems can be fed information about the weather forecast and only turn on sprinklers when the conditions are dry, minimising water waste. It might seem small for one office complex or development to do this, but replicated across many organisations, this simple change can have a huge impact.

Hänninen adds that, to build a progressive strategy and culture around climate change, organisations need to embrace everyone’s input. He says leaders should “listen to all those crazy ideas and be willing to fail fast,” setting themselves ambitious but realistic climate goals. 

“Big change doesn’t happen within a rigid framework, it requires a fundamental shift in behaviour,” says Hänninen. “With frameworks, you get linear improvements, you don’t get exponential improvements. So I think the first thing is you need to believe that it’s possible.”

To find a path to positive climate action, organisations need to embrace a mindset of progress, set clear goals and celebrate achievements. It’s time to shift the narrative from impossibility to possibility and opportunity.