A Human Response To Hard Science: Reflecting On IPCC AR6 & the Climate Crisis

07 September, 2021

It has been fascinating to reflect and digest the discussions around the IPCC’s recently released Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) in response to the climate crisis. The mix of feelings and emotions it has conjured up—disbelief, grief, fear, despondency, guilt, worry, anger, hope, and a renewed sense of energy and urgency.

As we grapple with the importance of this paper—and while policymakers and businesses consider what this means—it’s important to acknowledge the very human element to the hard and rather terrifying science we are presented with.

The hard science

  • There is no doubt that humans are to blame: “There is no uncertainty that global warming is caused by human activity and the burning of fossil fuels,” – Friederike Otto, climatologist at University of Oxford and IPCC co-author
  • Temperatures are rising faster than expected, and will keep rising: Without “immediate, rapid and large-scale” reductions, we won’t be able to keep below 2°C warming, let alone 5°C
  • Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent: Extreme heat waves that previously only struck once every 50 years are now expected to happen once per decade, while severe droughts are happening 1.7 times as often
  • Sea levels are continuing to rise, and fast: With the thaw of permafrost, melting of ice sheets and thermal expansion of warmer ocean waters, flooding has nearly doubled in many coastal areas since the 1960s, with once-in-a-century coastal surges set to occur once a year by 2100.
  • Rapidly growing cities will bear the brunt: Usually warmer than surrounding regions, cities will face amplified effects of climate change, including heat waves, flooding from heavy precipitation events and sea level rise in coastal cities.

A lack of progress to date

The recent report has been flagged as ‘a wake up call’, but I have to confess I struggle with that slightly. If we’re honest with ourselves, the science—and crucially agreement amongst the scientific community of the human impact on the climate—has been there for over 10 years. So why have we not made better progress up to this point?

  • Maybe it was because the science was there, but only for those who wanted to see it and really hear the crisis calls?
  • Maybe it’s because the climate crisis is such a big issue and people struggle to make sense of it and to connect to it on a more personal level?

Or maybe it’s something else altogether…

What if the lack of progress is not because climate change and its response are too complex to navigate, but that the way we live our lives, run our businesses and our economy is? Could it be that the overwhelm we often experience on dealing with the climate crisis is because of a lack of capacity to engage with the complex, multi-layered systems we ourselves have played a part in creating?

The human response

Most of the people I have spoken to about the climate crisis since the release of the report have broadly fallen into one of two camps. 1) ‘It’s too late, we’re absolutely f*cked, we’re not going make it’, and 2) ‘Sh*t, we’ve got to get on and fix this and we don’t have long, just tell me what I can do right now – I want to help’. Whether it’s hope or hopelessness, or somewhere in between, as individuals we really need to give the time to feel into where we’re at.

The passion and desire to be part of a solution is definitely what we need if we’re going to make progress in this existential crisis, but it is so important that we allow ourselves the opportunity to fully acknowledge the immense scale of this challenge we are faced with. And the reason this is so important is that if we jump straight to the desire to act without engaging with the true scale of the challenge we’re faced with, we risk jumping to the more accessible yet lower-impact solutions which won’t generate the fundamental shifts we need if we are to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

The time for smooth, predictable and painless transitions is behind us. Deep engagement with this science will involve us questioning everything we have known—capitalism, consumption, travel, work, and our social fabric.

‘Capitalist economic growth is the primary driver of ecological destruction … and then positions itself as the primary solution to that ecological destruction’

(Jason Hickel, Anthropologist)

I’ve seen so many articles flying around with conclusions of ‘now is the time to act’, with tips on the individual responses—such as eating less meat, flying less, reviewing your pension, etc. All of these are critical and help us fulfil our desire for individual agency. But it’s also time that we started to address the elephant the room: the way our economies, businesses, and political systems operate are at odds with the challenge we face. Al Gore used the phrase ‘an inconvenient truth’ 15 years ago, and this is the piece I worry people and businesses haven’t fully grappled with. For this, we need to consider the challenges we face at a systems level.

What we can do differently this time

1. Reconnect with the immense potential for people-powered change

The first step is that we need to stop thinking about economic and political systems as being out of our control. Within every political organisation, within every business, within every city, are people. And it is people that make the decisions. People that create the solutions. People that challenge the assumptions. And this means ensuring the climate crisis we are increasingly engaging with through our personal lives must translate unapologetically into everybody’s day job.

Whether you are a board member, an accountant, a schoolteacher, a gardener, a construction worker, every one of us needs to consider the opportunity to combat climate change through our work.

But it’s not easy.

You could be employed by an organisation that has a deeply entrenched operating model and culture which feels impossible to shift to a net positive future. This could be an organisation which is known to have a detrimental impact on the environment (e.g. a manufacturing process that emits tonnes of CO2, or a meeting culture based on domestic/international flights). Put simply the overwhelming sentiment within these organisations, of ‘this is how we’ve always done things’ needs to be thrown straight out of the window. From a great height. Right now.

2. Shift the corporate narrative from ‘what we’ve done…’ to ‘what is possible now?’

And this is where we come to our second point. We—and particularly the leaders that perpetuate these unsustainable systems—need to open up the space for new thinking, diversity in thinking, and genuinely creative solutions. The energy being put into holding on to the past needs to be shifted immediately to one of possibility. That means moving away from technical problem solving, continuous improvement detailed roadmaps and reports, to one of transformation and disruptive innovation and the creation of sustainable businessmodels.

We need to overcome the negative ‘group think’ that perpetuates existing structures and approaches, and instead have candid heart felt conversations, where companies hold a mirror up to themselves in a very honest way. This requires vulnerability amongst leaders – to acknowledge fully that the business model that has served the organisation for the last 300 years, is no longer fit for purpose. It means providing the space for creative and highly sustainable solutions to emerge which, to repeat the obvious, means firmly divorcing from out-dated assumptions that no longer fit a 1.5 degree world.

3. Feed the hard science and known environmental and societal constraints into business innovation models

We need to use the clarity of the challenge ‘to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees’ as we would any other challenge in business—to drive sustainable innovation. But that will only happen if it is front of mind, within the day-to-day dialogue, and considered as a fundamental element of organisational success.

We simply cannot carry on with the same operating models that have contributed to the climate crisis, and just fiddle around the edges. We won’t get the outcomes we need to keep warming below that critical 1.5 degrees level. Deep personal change needs to occur, which will then feed into organisational culture shift and behaviour change. Only then will business and political structures transform at the scale and pace we need them to.

I have no doubt that the technical solutions are there, and that the connection to climate change has been made in people’s personal lives. But what about now bringing the climate crisis into everybody’s day job. It is too big and too important to deal with on evenings and weekends.

We need the political and economic structures we operate within to shift dramatically, and we must remember that it is the people behind them that can drive the shift. The same human resource that has inadvertently caused the climate crisis we find ourselves in can be just the thing that saves us.

I for one am certain that with a renewed perspective of agency—not just in our home lives, but in everything we as people can influence—we can do this.

Next time we’ll start to look at 5 key sustainable business trends, as we consider how organisations are stepping up and responding to the environmental and societal challenges we face.

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