The debate about communicating apocalyptic climate risks misses the point - the only way to combat terrifying environmental warnings is by committing fully to climate action
I've been thinking a lot recently about catastrophic climate risk, because, well, how can you not?
There are multiple reasons for this bout of introspection. My wife and I are expecting our second son later this month, which has simultaneously pulled our personal concern horizons towards the short term - 'should we order new born nappies this week?' - and pushed them a few years further into the next century.
Then there's the glaring inadequacy of so many of our political leaders in the face of escalating climate risks. It is impossible to shake the nagging feeling the best years of my generation's careers face a second lost decade, marred by irresolvable constitutional riddles, economic arguments that would shame a kindergarten class, and the fear a nuclear arsenal resides in the hands of a reckless real estate mogul whose personal arrogance is only matched by his geopolitical ineptitude.
I've also been listening a bit too much to the nihilistic yet strangely uplifting new album by Father John Misty, which deals with the agony of child birth, gender inequality, and the raw battle for survival - and that's just the first verse of the first song. Environmental apocalypse, religious absurdities, social media addiction, the vacuity of modern culture, and polluted air and water soon follow (sample lyric: "if you want ecstasy or birth control / Just run the tap until the water's cold"). The lyrics are accompanied by gorgeous, California-infused piano melodies, and are all the more unsettling for that.
And, inevitably, there's this:
However, the main spark for some environmentalist soul-searching was David Wallace-Wells' sweeping New York magazine exploration of the plausible worst-case climate scenarios we could be facing, and the deeply unsatisfactory response from much of the green community to this ear-splitting clarion call.
I'm not about to re-prosecute the arguments the article's dystopian vision ignited, not least because (as is the case with most things) Vox's David Roberts has already done a far better job than I ever could.
Suffice to say the widespread misunderstanding of the article's rationale (of course it is alarmist, it is deliberately exploring worst case scenarios, it is meant to be alarming), was, to borrow Robert's term, irksome.
1. The more I think about the climate community's response to @dwallacewells' big story, the more I'm just ... ugh. Filled with disgust.— David Roberts (@drvox) July 12, 2017
The handful of factual flaws in the piece were both marginal to the overall argument and were corrected immediately in an updated annotated version that demonstrated a degree of journalistic integrity we can but wish those who fixate on the most staggeringly optimistic climate projections would emulate. The sound and fury contained in the attempts at debunking the article largely failed to engage with its central premise that while exploring low risk, but high impact scenarios may not be 'balanced' it is still a valid exercise when you consider that what is at stake is civilisation itself. As such these critiques signified, if not nothing, then very little.
The unbending reality continues to intrude: 6C of warming within the lifetime of people alive today may be extremely unlikely, but nor is it inconceivable. At that level of warming, or anywhere close to it, all bets are off. We really don't know how the experiment we are playing on the atmosphere plays out. What we do know is that if 6C of warming is highly unlikely, 4C is entirely plausible - that is plenty bad enough.
The wider criticism that the article was too doom-laden and was therefore "unhelpful" deserves a simple response: grow up.
There may be plenty of studies suggesting optimistic messages are more effective at stimulating action than pessimistic assessments of the future, but Roberts is right when he says this is a field where none of the research is conclusive.
Cataclysmic projections may prove stultifying for some, but motivating for others. #Climateoptimism may spur some into action, while lulling others in to a false sense of security. The columnist Zoe Williams offered some sage advice recently, observing that we should be careful about calling things we want to discourage "high risk" as it only serves to encourage those who are risk-takers. We contain multitudes and effective messaging should recognise this complex fact.
Back when he was the first Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband did his bit for climate optimism with an anecdote about a Labour Party member who reminded him that Martin Luther King never said "I have a nightmare", it was the "dream" that motivated people. It's a nice line, but it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Yes, the hope of a better world was critical to the success of the civil rights movement, but there was also plenty of effort expended highlighting appalling injustice, the damage wrought by segregation, and the growing risk of civil unrest. The dream was critical, but the nightmare already existed and would only worsen with inaction.
Faced with a threat of existential proportions a strategy that centres on telling everyone everything is going to be fine is laughably insufficient (it's hollow laughter, obviously). Far better to acknowledge that we need both a full understanding of the risks we face and a healthy dose of optimism about how they can yet be overcome. It is an argument brilliantly expounded by Renee Lertzman in her response to the controversy sparked by the New York article. It deserves quoting at length:
"It's not about hope or despair or solutions versus warnings. It's about openly acknowledging that climate change is a classic both-and situation. Yes, things are very bad, and yes, things are likely to get worse; and yes, many people are working on mind-blowing innovative solutions; and yes, humans have tremendous capacities; and yes, it's also really hard and frustrating; and yes, you yourself as a citizen and an individual have a vital role to play in this unfolding mess. And yes, you may feel pretty bummed out at times. If climate change feels hopeless, that's a natural feeling to have. All the more reason to come join us. You matter…
"… The truth is, no one really knows the magic formula for motivating people.
"But there are a few things we do know. Humans are motivated by love, belonging, meaning, and mattering. People love good stories - even ones (or especially one) that have shame, fear, guilt, and anxiety. To understand such stories, one has to have a conscience and care about the world.
"There's no need to sugarcoat the situation we're in; let's put a rest to that argument. What we need is heaps of fierce compassion and bravery."
The crucial question, of course, is how to generate and then harness that "fierce compassion and bravery". How do we apply it at the political, the corporate, and the individual level?
It is here that I found the response to Wallace-Wells' article from what Roberts accurately describes as the "Hope Police" reached its most, erm, irksome. Because if the primary criticism was that it is debilitating and counter-productive to be overly downbeat in the face of climate risk where were the responses that hit back with a narrative of climate optimism? That provided a credible vision for delivering a world where warming is limited to less than 1.5C, a vision that is even more compelling than Wallace-Wells' apocalyptic scenarios?
I know you could argue this hope-filled vision is everywhere if you know where to look - it's an argument I've made plenty of times in the past. It is contained in the plummeting cost of renewables, the extended range of zero emission vehicles, and the blueprints for smarter, greener cities. It is evident in pretty much everything we write about at BusinessGreen and thankfully it is a vision that post-Paris Agreement has been adopted to varying extents by virtually every government on the planet and vast swathes of the business community (with one bright orange exception).
And yet it too often feels like attempts to generate a hopeful narrative of global decarbonisation remain badly underpowered, even after Paris. Our collective efforts are still not commensurate to the scale of the risk, nor fully cognisant of the scale of the opportunities. They are certainly not up to the task of mitigating the catastrophic risks we are facing.
What does an effective climate optimism strategy look like? How do you generate sufficient hope to balance out the despair triggered by the climate threat?
I am increasingly of the view that the only strategy left is one of full spectrum prioritisation, where pretty much every political and policy lever, every business decision, every economic strategy is put at the service of climate mitigation and resilience. That does not mean condemning every move that falls short of this level of prioritisation, but it does mean acknowledging that it is far too late for half measures.
In a column penned in the midst of the 2014 floods crisis that briefly engulfed a coalition government that had overseen cuts to flood defence spending, the columnist Matthew D'Ancona made a timeless observation that has stayed with me ever since:
"Yesterday, Cameron evaded questions about Cabinet unity on climate change, insisting only that his own views have not altered. But if that is the case - if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather - then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery. One cannot be "pragmatic" or "in favour of sensible compromise" about a threat to the survival of the human race. So what's it going to be, Mr Cameron?"
The question still stands and all political and business leaders need to find an adequate answer.
What could such an answer look like? What does a commensurate response to the prospects of catastrophic climate change entail?
Let's take a look at three quick examples from the interlocking worlds of politics, business, and campaigning.
This September the UK government should publish its long-awaited Clean Growth Plan detailing how it plans to meet emissions reduction goals through to the early 2030s. The plan should contain bold new commitments covering the near complete decarbonisation of the power system, the rapid expansion of ultra-low emission transport, a national energy efficiency programme, and a raft of other measures to curb emissions from industry, agriculture, and waste. It should amount to nothing less than the most comprehensive economic and infrastructure transformation plan the UK has ever seen. It will touch all our lives, boost the UK's competitiveness, and modernise whole industries to make them fit for the 21st century. The open question is, will it be presented as such?
Judging by past experience the plan is likely to be briefed in to the Sunday papers, almost certainly with some triangulation to try and nullify the elements of it the climate sceptic press hate. Business Secretary Greg Clark will then give a speech, the plan will be published, green groups will criticise it for not being ambitious enough, business leaders will praise the potential for new investment, neo-con think tanks and rent-a-quote Ayn Rand fan-boys will slam the green takeover of the government, they'll be a poorly informed debate on Radio 4, almost certainly featuring the Chancellor of the Exchequer from the mid-1980s, and then the whole circus will move on.
But if this is really meant to be a credible part of an international effort to stave off submerged cities and methane-belching plains is this in any way adequate?
Here's what is required (leaving aside Theresa May's electorally hamstrung inability to deliver much of it): The entire cabinet and every business leader the government's black book can muster, on stage for the launch of the new strategy; an explicit declaration that this, full decarbonisation of the economy, is *the* post-Brexit economic strategy; clear and attractive retail policies, such as a diesel scrappage scheme, tax breaks for green investment, new apprenticeships, a green home building programme, etc, etc; an open invitation to all opposition party leaders to share a platform to support the plan with a declaration that while they may not agree on every component they fully endorse the over-arching goal; a willingness to shame those party leaders who play party politics and refuse to turn up; a fortnight long programme where each day sees a new cabinet member explain how the plan will transform different parts of the economy; a Royal Commission on the flaws of GDP as an economic measure and the viability of alternative quality of life metrics; and, yes, a brave assertion that carbon intensive industries will have to transform or be scaled back, backed by a decarbonisation adaptation fund to help affected communities respond to this global trend.
What happens if some cabinet members refuse to play ball? Simple, sack them. This is non-negotiable. This is critical to the UK's economic, infrastructure, and national security strategy. You are either on board or you are not.
No government has tried this. No world leader has gone truly all in on climate action, although it is worth noting that those who have gone furthest with this narrative - Obama, Merkel, Macron, Xi - have enjoyed considerable political dividends as a result. With over 70 per cent of the British public voicing support for clean energy, making this one of the few areas where the country is united, why shouldn't the government present its strategy as the exciting, transformational, and yes, hope-filled agenda that it is?
The environmental campaigner Bill McKibben has characterised such a strategy as a war effort, but it is actually even bigger than that. As David Powell of the New Economics Foundation observed recently, "fact is there's no historical analog for climate. So we need moonshot, WWII, suffrage, revolt, market diffusion, love. All of it. And more".
What is the business equivalent of this approach? It boils down to the simple question, what would Elon do?
The importance of the Tesla boss extends far beyond the company's share price. For all the admirable positions taken by many business leaders on climate change, Musk is the only high profile figure to publicly envisage the true scale of the transformation that is required over the next three decades. His brash style may not be to everyone's taste, some of his goals (hyperloops, Mars missions, and the like) might prove overly ambitious, the whole endeavour could yet falter, but the sweeping vision contained in Tesla's master plan has to be the benchmark for any and all businesses seeking to prosper in a decarbonising economy. If you are not delivering a strategy that enables zero emission operation within a few decades you are not doing it right.
Consequently, incremental environmental improvement strategies are looking increasingly dated. Carbon-intensive operations need to be treated like the soon to be stranded assets they must become. Corporate strategies need to begin with science-based emissions targets and 100 per cent clean energy and build from there. They need to be embedded in every part of the organisation, unveiled and led by the chief executive, and become a defining part of the company's DNA. Anything less is not worth the digital annual sustainability report it is written on. If this is too ambitious for many companies in their current form, then a public recognition of the scale of transformation that is required may suffice as a starting point, but it has to be that - a starting point to be swiftly followed by comprehensive and relentless action.
Every business has to be able to answer the question that will soon be heading their way thanks to Mark Carney's Financial Stability Board climate disclosure recommendations: what is your plan for a scenario where full decarbonisation occurs over the coming decades? What is your plan for coping with 4C-6C of warming? Provide the right answer and we might be able to justify the last ditch optimism attached to emerging clean technologies.
What of campaigners? There is no need to tell campaigners of the need to prioritise climate action, but here too the despair-hope dialectic needs tweaking. No one should demand campaigners temper their environmental warnings; if anything they could do with taking a leaf out of Wallace-Wells' book and identifying more visceral ways of highlighting quite how bad things could get during the second half of the century. But equally they have a crucial role to play in more effectively throwing a spotlight on the sources of hope that are emerging.
I once shared a drink with a campaigner at one of the UK's top environmental charities who confided that in the wake of the Climate Change Act nearly a decade ago there had been a plan for a new high profile campaign to decarbonise communities across the UK and publicly demonstrate the attractiveness of meeting the goals the law set out. But beyond the admirable but scattershot Transition Towns movement and the sterling work of 10:10 the idea never really went anywhere and the campaigning community returned to its default setting of attacking government at every turn.
This is a concept that urgently needs reviving. Every stunt that highlights the environmental crises we face needs to be matched by one that shines a light, perhaps literally, on the majestic wind turbines that are delivering much of our power. They need to help get people test driving electric and fuel cell cars, embracing new consumption patterns, and welcoming positive policy developments at least as vigorously as they oppose policy failures. Hope is essential, but it won't generate itself, and in the face of continuing political, media, and corporate communications failures civil society needs to move beyond sounding the alarm, important as that is.
We are in a world of trouble. We need to openly and honestly recognise that fact and then bring the optimistic power of business, technology, politics, and society at large to bear in pursuit of the emissions cuts that might just avert catastrophe.
In order to do this we must pose D'Ancona's old question to every political and business leader. There is no sensible compromise to be found here, you need to go all-in. What's it to be? Are you compassionate and brave enough to recognise the true scale of the challenge and the opportunity we face?
The Father John Misty album closes with a repetition of the line "there's nothing to fear". Given the context it is hard to tell whether it is ironic, nihilistic, or reassuring. He's wrong though, there is plenty to fear. But there are plenty sources of hope too. We just need to throw everything we've got at nurturing them. The problem is that for all the progress we've made, we're not there yet. And that's why, in between the nappies, I keep thinking about catastrophic climate risk. Again, how can I not?
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