Why we are not solving the climate challenge

The latest report on climate change published last week was not cheerful. Instead of making progress towards the goals, it appears that we are off course and actually deviating further away. None of the G20 countries will achieve their goals. The world has had plenty of notice and time to act, but clearly success is further away than before, but probably less so than next year and the years after. Why is it so difficult to do the right thing, then? Well, there are a number of reasons for this and this does not bode well. Here they are, in no particular order.

Reason #1: We are not scared, yet

Whenever a devastating climatic event hits us, it is not really perceived as a threat for those who have not been affected. Like any dramatic piece of news, people read about it, think how terrible it is for a few moments and then move on and forget. It is a bit like car accidents. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them. Even if you are a good driver, you never know when a bad one will cross your path, and it is the exact same thing with climate. The consequences do not stay within the borders of the countries that produce emissions. It takes only one bad neighbour to spoil it for everybody. The consequences go all over to the neighbours just as well. In my book We Will Reap What We Sow, I addressed the denial and procrastination by making a comparison with Pharaoh in the movie The Ten Commandments by saying that the leaders of the world may pay attention when their first born will be killed in such a natural disaster and just like in the movie, they might grieve for some time and then decide to taunt fate again. I believe that is exactly where we are heading.

Next to that, as long as insurances are willing to cover the damage, a false illusion of protection will still exist. Be assured that if insurers decided to not cover climate change related damages, the debate would change rather quickly. Last summer, there was a wildfire rather close to my place. It was the second year on a row that the region had been hit by forest fires. I can tell you that this time, considering the location and the direction and strength of the wind, I was seriously worried. We were lucky and the fires were eventually contained. We had to breathe very smoky air for weeks and our air quality was worse than Beijing or Delhi, though. In my opinion, we should be a bit more scared by what is going on than we currently are.

It is difficult to scare people by talking about just a couple of degrees in 80 years from now. Presented in those terms, it sounds benign. That, too, is part of the procrastination problem. We need to hear where there is going to be devastation, how big it will be and how much it will cost. If the problem is big and serious, it must sound that way.

Reason #2: We have no real vision for a different, better world

It is nice to look at alternative energies and all sorts of innovations, but they will not happen unless the numbers (meaning the $$$) work out well. That is the problem. Technically, everything is possible. We could replace fossil fuels rather quickly but the economics as stated today do not stimulate change. To change the economics, it would be nice to start by stopping subsidizing the disaster, but we do not do that. The problem with climate a change and economics is that there is a simple reality: it will cost money and we all will have to pay a share. The worst part about this is that the longer we wait to invest in our future, the more expensive it will get.

But beyond the boring money concerns, what we need is a vision of our future world. How will it look like? How will people be able to have a decent standard of living (oops, money matters again)? What are the jobs of the future and which ones will disappear? Will it be a safe or dangerous world? There are many questions to answer if we want to create good will for change. There is no such thing as fear of change as such. Fear of change is actually the fear of loss. What I might lose is the primary concern. To alleviate this concern, clear and reliable vision is a prerequisite, and we do not have any at this moment. There is too much focus on problems and not enough on solutions. Without a vision that speaks to people, there is no reason why they should get excited about change.

Reason #3: There is no plan

Since there is no clear and strong vision, there cannot be a plan. When it comes to climate change, all we hear is an abstract-sounding target of limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees maximum, even though it sounds specific. What does that mean concretely for our daily lives, starting today? Who is supposed to do what and by when? All the climate agreements have been non-binding, which means that, in terms of determination, they compare with the average person’s New Year’s resolutions. It is obvious why the agreements are non-binding. If they were, there is not one single country who would commit. Countries have goals. It almost sounds like a plan, except that the goals are not really specific. Indeed, which sectors of society, business, governments and non-governmental organizations are supposed to do what? Does any industry have goals to achieve? Not really. Look at the car industry. Since the economy runs better, they have decided to stop the production of small cars and focus on larger cars, mostly SUVs and trucks, which consume more fuel  than the smaller sedans. Why? Just because the profit margin on larger vehicles is higher. At least, during the Great Recession of 2008 and the following years, when gas prices were much higher and the economy was hurting, sales of small economical cars were out performing the big gas guzzlers. Maybe economic hardship is what is needed to fix the problem. We just never really learn, it seems. Let’s face it, we have no plan and everybody does what is in his/her best interest, or just suits them best, on the short term.

If we and all the leaders in all sectors of society had a plan, there would be clear instructions about what is required from us. Nobody is giving instructions to people like me about how I should and could reduce my environmental footprint. There is a lot of PR and marketing, though, but the underlying message from businesses is really the same as before: buy as much goods as you can from me. It is all about volume, while the solution is to replace volume to shift from always more to always enough.

The most important part of the plan would be the transition plan. Setting targets without defining all the concrete practical steps and how to measure progress is rather pointless. How do we get from situation A to situation B? How long does it take and how do we ensure progress? Let me know if you know because I do not see anything of the kind.

Reason #4: There is no collective coordination

Besides the goals, a good plan would indicate clearly what the respective responsibilities are of all organizations and individuals. It would be clear what the contribution of each entity needs to be. This is essential for a plan and in particular for the transition plan. Since we are all in this together, success is about team work. Everybody must be motivated, must believe it is the right thing to do and participate. How many of you have received clear goals and a mandate to participate?

Yes, we can fix the problem. We did fix the hole in the ozone layer, didn’t we? We also fixed acid rains, didn’t we? How did we do that? Simply by defining very clear and specific goals and allocating them clearly. The team knew what to do, who had to do what… and they did it. Regarding climate change, we are just 25 years late. Countries reject the blame on each other instead of finding good agreements on how to fairly solve the problems and help each other out of trouble.

Reason #5: We prefer to blame than to fix

As I mentioned earlier, emissions from one country travel all around the Earth. Eventually, we all own and share all emissions, not just the ones we create. We are collectively responsible and the problem can be solved only collectively. That is tricky in a world where individualism spreads everywhere. The result is that we focus much more on who is to blame than on fixing the problem. We have limited time to fix the problem, but once it is fixed, we will have ample time to figure out who was to blame if we think it is a useful way to spend time.

Let’s face it, everyone who indulges in the consumption society is to blame, but of course, as Jean Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is the others”. Unfortunately, we have created a society in which we all feel so entitled to pretty much everything; we have lost the sense of what the value of things really is. Our entire economic system is about more for me here and now. Of course, changing this philosophy will not be easy because to fix the problem is going about to give up something and that is tough. Of course, we can choose not to act and Mother Nature is going to fix it for us. I suspect that then all the consumption aficionados will turn to their mother (nature) and say angrily that is it not fair and that they hate her. That is always how it goes when mommy decide to clean the little one’s messy bedroom. So who will fix it:  we or Mother Nature? The choice is ours.

Reason #6: Short term prevails

This is a basic human nature trait. The short-term always comes first, before the long-term. It is certainly interesting to try to bring a message of responsibility about future generations but the human animal is not wired that way. Only very few people are truly altruistic and have the willingness to give up their own interest. The only way to get people to have a balanced approach between the short term and the long term is by creating a trade off that is worth it. Here, the key word is trade. If we want people to give some of their short-term comfort for future generations, we must give them something in return. Give and take is a very basic human characteristic, too. So what can we trade off? Let’s not be naive, what will work is always something of a material nature, in particular money. As time runs out, there is not much time for cute negotiations. We are going to have to bribe the current generations to do something for the future ones. It is just that simple. Of course, somebody is going to have to pay for it. My guess is that it will be all of us, present and future. There is no real alternative to that, and it is time we all realize this it is what it is going to be.

Reason #7: Lame leadership

I wish I did not have to say that, but it is truly part of the problem. Our leaders are not really leading when it comes to climate change. As I mentioned earlier, they have not presented a vision of where our world is going and how our lives, private and professional, will be in the coming decades. They have no detailed specific plan to transition to the future and they do not have the gut to enforce change. They mostly give lip service. I understand that. When you have to face elections every so many years, you do not want to upset the voters. You do not want to put their jobs at risk and you do not want to cause a recession or worse. That, too, is very human. But the job of governing is not about trying to please all the time. Just as there is a difference between being friends and being parents, there is a difference between being a head of state and being a demagogue. In exceptional times, tough decisions come with the territory. As a leader, if you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen! Being a leader is first of all to take good care of your followers so that they can make it to the destination. Communication is a crucial part of leadership, especially when it comes to change. A leader must explain what must change, how it must change and what it will take to succeed. There is never enough communication about change. It is the only way of making it sink in the people’s minds. They have to get acquainted with the idea and they also must be part of the conversation to develop a sense of ownership of where things are going. About the climate change issue, the communication has been insufficient by far. This lack of communication is largely responsible for the lack of trust in politicians and why the people think their leadership is disconnected with the reality of their daily lives and concerns. Leaders must reassure people. Instead, they too often worry them.

Reason #8: There are powerful opponents

Not everybody is pleased with the potential change that the climate change challenges are calling for. This is the main reason why they work hard to discredit the scientists who report about their findings. As I said earlier, fear of change is really about fear of loss and the climate change deniers are no different than the average man about that, even when they happen to be millionaires or higher. What are they afraid to lose? Well, it is always about the same: money. Either because they would have to accept higher costs of operation or possibly seeing their business die or simply lose their jobs and livelihoods. I can understand such a fear when the person in question could lose his/her job and not find employment easily and land into financial hardship. I find it much more difficult to understand that from billionaires who have nothing to worry about in terms of financial security. Actually, I would expect from true captain of industries that they see opportunities in new business activities and venture into them for both their benefit and society’s. Perhaps, it depends if they are billionaires by hard work or just by birth.

Reason #9: We are addicted to materialism

The so-called consumption society has been acting like a drug dealer in a way. Most people are so hooked on buying stuff that they can’t stop. The banks have contributed greatly to the problem but lending money too easily so that people who cannot afford stuff can go to the mall and buy just like the rest. The flip side of this addiction is that withdrawal is not easy. Everything is about tempting the client. It is not just businesses that lure consumers but peer pressure joins into pushing people into buying more stuff. Perhaps, it is easy for me to say this because I must have some sort of a temptation resistance gene. Marketing leaves me completely cold and I buy something only if I need it, not because someone wants to sell it to me. My wife calls me a minimalist. I am not sure what that means but maybe I am. All I know is that I live happily and I do not have any creditor breathing in my neck. Along with this personality trait of mine, I also have no problem making sacrifices if needed. I can wait to buy something. In a way, my motto could be “if you don’t need it don’t buy it/if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it”.

About climate change, sacrifice will be part of the game one way or another. I believe that it will be quite useful to realize that life cannot be about instant gratification all the time and that happiness can be found through many other ways than through buying “stuff”. Of course, such an approach is going to conflict with our dominant economic model.

Reason #10: The economy and financial system is all about growth

All our economy revolves around always more. In a finite world, it is just a matter of time before such a model comes to an end. In biology, there is a distinction between growth and development. And it is a very important distinction.  I believe that when it comes to economy and finance, the distinction between the two terms has blurred out and it might very well be the root of a misunderstanding that might prove very costly in the future. I am all for development, but I have mixed feelings about growth. As an example, I would mention an animated graph that has been circulating recently on social media about the variation of GDP per country between 1961 and 2017. It is a cute animation, but I do not find it all that interesting because the GDP depends for a part of the size of the population. A graph showing the GDP per capita would have been a better indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of the different countries, although an average does not say much about distribution. I also would have preferred to see a graph showing the distribution of that wealth with the people of the countries, as this would be a good indication of whether the countries takes good care of their people or not. I also would have liked to see the graph with the ratio debt/GDP and deficit/GDP. I suspect those graphs would have told very interesting stories. For a country, the GDP is just the same as what the sales revenue is for a business. It is not a particularly good indicator of the profit or of cash-flow.

Growth is also the magic word for stock markets, and in particular of the share price. Since the entire financial system is locked in stocks directly and indirectly, any stock market crash will affect everyone, because even people who do not own stocks depend on the markets (just think of how deep in stocks some pension plans are).

This is why the climate is tricky to handle because if company stocks from environmentally damaging companies or industries crash, the entire system can potentially implode. The best way to prevent this would be to have a plan, and in particular a transition plan ready so that company could transition smoothly and thus avert a market crash, but we haven’t got that. As we all know, there is a lot of short-term activity on stock markets and there, too, short-term prevails over long-term. Speaking of short term, CEOs have to present their results quarterly to financial analysts. Compare that with elections only every 4 or 5 years!

Reason #11: We are increasingly disconnected from Nature

This is a consequence of how our societies and economies have evolved since the first Industrial Revolution. Today’s most obvious consequences are mass production and mass consumption, which relocated human populations from rural and agricultural areas into urban centers and the trend, continues. There are a couple of generations who have never really been in much contact with Nature. Surveys for city people about where they think food comes from are always revealing. In particular, with animal products, it is amazing to see how many people do not make a connection between eggs and hens or between milk and cows, or even between a live animal and its meat. I strongly believe that when we lose the connection with nature, we also lose a sense of where we come from and what we are about. If we do not understand how Nature works, it is difficult to respect it and when we do not understand our biological nature, we also lose respect for life. Unfortunately, we look at ourselves less and less as biological entities and more and more as legal entities. This trend worries me.

In a way, the so-called primitive societies (which I am less and less sure that they were that primitive at all) had a strong respect and fear for the forces of Nature. The term Mother Nature that I have used above is reminiscent from this respect and fear. We would not mess with it because we understood that we could be punished. Once the connection with Nature fades, the punishment part fades too. Then, we are just too happy to take and not give back and this is a serious mistake. Sustainability and circular economy are all about giving back so that the cycle can continue. This part we tend to have forgotten and this is why we shifted away from always enough to always more and that we will have to revert to the original concept because always more is not sustainable but always enough is. Here is your challenge!

Reason #12: We put too much faith in technology

Understand me well, I am all for technology and innovation. That said, technology is only as good as how we use it. I have mentioned in earlier articles how important this subtle distinction is. I am convinced that as of today we already have all the technology we need to mitigate climate change and have happy lives. So, why don’t we solve the problem? Once again the magic word is: money. For many of these technological solutions, the economics do not favour them, but favour the current destructive system. A part of the problem is in the allocation of where subsidies go. We encourage non-sustainable systems to survive while we do not reward enough sustainable solutions. Another important aspect of whether technology can help us overcome the challenges lies in our behaviour and that is independent of technology. Technology can only help us if we want to help ourselves first. Keeping our same bad habits of wasting and overconsumption and hoping that some new technology is going to clean the mess for us without us having to make any effort of any sort is completely delusional, not to say completely immature. There cannot be any solution if we do not change ourselves. I could paraphrase both Einstein’s quote saying that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result and Ghandi’s saying that we must be the change we want to see.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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