I spent some of the summer in British Columbia, Canada where smoke from 600 forest fires hung in the air for days and weeks on end. In Vancouver, the sun was often a pale, crimson orb behind the smoke. Where my wife’s family live, further north in Prince George, some days it was dark for hours after dawn. As the smoke spread across the neighbouring provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, it covered an area that conservatively was five times the size of the United Kingdom.
The recent IPCC report comes with a big dollop of doom.
This is nothing to what the recent IPCC report on climate change says is coming our way. The report comes with a big dollop of doom. Food shortages. Millions exposed to floods. And on a far greater scale than anything we saw this summer or in recent years.
It’s hard to remain positive in the face of so much bad news about climate change. The report says we have to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to have net zero emissions globally by 2050. The report’s co-chairs were deliberately direct in the press release for the report’s launch:
“The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
“Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.”
Fight or freeze?
Those are big words. Are they a help or a hindrance? Some say this is the dose of hard-hitting reality we need to wake up and finally take some serious action. Others say that too much negativity makes us turn off, paralysed by the scale of the risks we face.
Dr Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, had a paper turned down by a leading responsible business journal this summer. His paper reviews the science of climate change and concludes starkly that the world is inexorably heading to a form of societal collapse in the next ten years. One reviewer challenged the author on the emotional impact this conclusion might have on its readers, arguing that it might lead to despair, depression and disengagement from the issue. In fact, this is addressed in the paper: psychologists say that a sense of a tragic future can in fact lead people to reflect on what really matters.
On the other hand, Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra (a fellow B Corp), has railed against the risk of ‘climate fatalism.’ Research she commissioned in 2017 showed that, across the world, 14% of people think we cannot tackle climate change. This view that we are doomed is particularly prevalent among the young with 22% of those aged 16-35 being climate fatalists. And this fatalism—a ‘defeatist performance belief’—will inhibit action. Solitaire’s view is that we need to tell ourselves a different story—not of being destroyed by the climate monster we have created, but of mankind collectively going on the ‘hero’s journey’ in which we struggle against huge odds, but emerge to a new, better reality, thanks to our ingenuity. She’s implicitly putting her trust in our capacity to innovate and deploy renewable energy at scale.
Someone’s gotta say it…
In my view, the starkness of the warnings in the IPCC report is useful. The IPCC has been criticized in the past for being modest with its claims. It is an international consensus—the largest in science—so views from the edges are by definition moderated. But here they are for all to see. The risks are both urgent and important.
It’s a climate crisis. We need stark truths and broad action.
Yes, the IPCC’s models mostly assume economic growth can continue indefinitely. Infinite growth on a finite planet: my eleven-year-old can spot the flaw in that argument. And the IPCC has been criticized for leaning too heavily on the unproven-at-scale technology of capturing the carbon dioxide from our power plants and burying it in holes in the ground to avoid it reaching the atmosphere.
But also included in the report are suggestions that we use less energy—essentially, suggesting we consume less. That’s radical. It’s nothing less than a call for a change in how capitalism is organised today.
We’ll always have Paris…
As the economist and political scientist Michael Jacobs pointed out back in 2016, the Paris Agreement saw governments doing something they rarely do: making commitments they don’t know how to meet, for a price that couldn’t yet be calculated.
How did this happen? Leading companies were persuaded of the potential of ‘doing well by doing good’ and joined the call for climate targets. The power of “going all-in,” as former head of sustainability at Ikea Steve Howard called it, was harnessed to give real clarity and drive to the ambition to reach zero emissions—a requirement the scientists established through their examination of the physics of climate change. Economists pointed out that not only were lower emissions better for the economy but also that fossil fuel reserves might become unburnable. They’ll be stranded assets in a carbon-constrained world. And NGOs campaigned for an end to coal.
Civil society is leading us to awareness and action.
This loose coalition of groups from civil society put pressure on governments for five years in the run-up to Paris “by orchestrating the narratives of science and economics to demand strong climate action, and organising the business community, NGOs and many others in support of a strong agreement,” argued Jacobs.
It was these different strands of civil society that introduced the idea that carbon emissions have to hit zero to keep global temperature increases to less than 2C of warming above pre-industrial temperatures. And for the aspirational target of 1.5C to be included.
What this recent IPCC report has done is update the science. By comparing how much better off the world will be if we achieve 1.5C compared with 2C, it has reinforced the lower aspirational target. It has included prescriptions for system changes in energy, land use, cities and industry. And has urged individuals to do their bit too: eating less meat, insulating our homes and using public transport. And while I share the view that individuals can only do their bit as part of a set of larger changes, the IPCC does offer us each some agency. And the IPCC co-chair Dr Debra Roberts appealed for us to engage in the democratic process should our politicians under-deliver: “…if [you] don’t have access to public transport, make sure you are electing politicians who provide options around public transport.”
The report makes it very clear: the need is so great, we can’t pick and choose from among the tools listed, we need to use all of them.
Shifting to a new economy
Coalitions of the willing, value propositions with ‘fit,’ cut-through messaging, clear calls to action…. These are all key components of successful multi-stakeholder communications campaigns—and ones we have aimed to include in our communications strategy work for the UN Principles for Responsible Banking, which cite the Paris Agreement.
As a United Nations body, the IPCC has significant convening power and serves as a platform for other communications, like this creative call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is just one example of the many campaigns for change emerging from civil society, progressive business groups, and many other engaged citizens, governments, and institutions around the world.
Maybe climate change will be the (big!) wedge issue that forces shareholder capitalism to shift for good to stakeholder capitalism? The logic—and crucially the narrative—of the IPCC report is calling for just that. This is where leadership must take us.