This is Exactly the Time: Consider Climate Change and Other Environmental Challenges

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We cannot ignore the current situation with economic and health issues dominating our world. GreenBiz, an environmental advocacy organization, brought this information to my attention. 

A quote in a Bloomberg article about sustainability and the U.S. economic crisis caught my attention. The quote came from Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a research group, whose self-described environmentalists founders made a career out of being agitators. For example, they argue in favor of nuclear power, natural gas, against a price on carbon emissions, claim that there’s no limit to the earth’s carrying capacity, and that energy efficiency doesn’t work because of something called the “rebound effect.”

Nordhaus said in the article: “It’s not the time to be talking about climate change or demanding climate policy … That’s going to cause extraordinary economic pain for a lot of people, most of whom don’t have the privilege of worrying about climate change. It would be tone-deaf to talk about climate change now.”

Just because a problem isn’t in the news doesn’t mean it has somehow been solved. All the above challenges remain, pandemic or not. And, to varying degrees, they all need to be kept alive, even amid other pressing priorities.

So, Nordhaus is wrong. This is exactly the time to be talking about climate change and other environmental challenges.

Unlike the Breakthrough Institute, economists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. warned that the most extreme risks of climate change, including the collapse of human civilization, can’t be ruled out. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said intensifying climate hazards could put millions of lives at risk, as well as trillions of dollars of economic activity.

We need to be talking unapologetically and with more enthusiasm about climate, the clean economy, renewable energy, resilient food systems, sustainable mobility, the circular economy, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nordhaus and his followers are quick to point out that addressing the climate crisis will ruin the economy and the spectacular boom times we’ve been enjoying. And to talk about it, during good times or bad, is somehow “tone-deaf.”

That argument has been rendered moot by COVID-19. The economy has changed globally.  The “extraordinary economic pain” Nordhaus fears is already upon us.  We’ll spend the next several years rebooting and rebuilding our economic systems.

Isn’t this the right time to talk about how that will unfold, about how to create a robust, resilient and regenerative economy for the future? And shouldn’t we be aligning our investments — and our tax dollars — in those directions?

Jim Bendell, University of Cumbria social-science professor is well-known among environmentalists for his theory of “deep adaptation.”   

He recently said: “In modern industrial societies, the fallout from Covid-19 feels like a dress rehearsal for the kind of collapse that climate change threatens.” This crisis reveals how fragile our current way of life has become.”

Steven Desmyter, co-head of responsible investment at Man Group, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, also agrees with Bendell.

“No one saw Covid-19 coming,” Desmyter said. “With global warming, there’s a catastrophe of equal or greater magnitude on the horizon that we can still do something about.”

Meehan Crist, of Columbia University, wrote in the New York Times that this is the time to build a better future.  So, where can we start?

Consider these opportunities:

  • Individuals are realizing that their consumption habits can be changed dramatically in a short period of time.  Maybe we can rethink our needs and wants and redesign our lives to impact more positively the resources we use.
  • Can organizations develop strategic flexibility to improve organizational performance, calling on new skills and mental attitudes to keep open the possibility of recognizing past errors and changing strategic course.  The most flexible decisions are ones that open the greatest number of options subsequently.  Strategic flexibility is the ability and willingness to make profitable and timely changes in a company to accommodate new situations, changes by increasing liquidity (internal) and diversification (external) options.  Flexibility is useful for the black swans that we experience, i.e., those unexpected shocks from situations such as COVID-19 and climate changes.   

Organizations can maintain flexibility from all sorts of moves such as building versatility and range in employee’s experience, skills and cognitive makeup; versatility and range of inter-firm networks; increasing resource and technology mobility and applications; planning systems (such as scenario building) that encourage flexible strategic thinking; making sure that organizational structures and systems do not inhibit adaptive behavior; tolerance for marginal activities; shared beliefs and norms for flexibility; simple shared rules; building in slack into resource allocations; and using real options.  We see all these techniques playing out in these uncertain times. For example, organizations are increasingly tolerant of alternative work styles given the need for people to work at home.  Companies are amassing cash to provide flexibility in their spending.  Firms are working together who otherwise would not be partners.    

  • Maybe we can rethink where we work and how we work.  Would a 32- hour work week be a better option given daycare, healthcare, and travel challenges people face in doing work at a physical location other than at home?   
  • Why not ensure that the aviation sector follows other industries aiming for net-zero emissions by mid-century? The sector is only about 3% of worldwide emissions but can be part of the solution.  The “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security,” or CARES Act, signed into law last week, eliminated the provision that would have required that airlines reduce carbon emissions in exchange for relief.
  • If keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a climate imperative, shouldn’t we be viewing the oil and gas industry’s economic travails as an opportunity to support an orderly transition away from fossil fuels while building the next generation of clean energy companies and skilled workers? The provisions supporting renewable energy were not included in the CARES Act.
  • Shouldn’t we help farmers and agribusinesses adopt climate- and ag-friendly techniques and technologies? Shouldn’t we take measures to ensure that our food systems provide healthy and affordable food for all without biting the hand that feeds us? CARES provided no incentives to change how food is grown or produced.

If we have the chance to start anew, why would we want to rescue and lock in unsustainable systems and industries for another generation or more? Why wouldn’t we want to create a more sustainable and resilient economy? Isn’t this, a moment of rebuilding, the right time to talk about this?

Indeed, America’s track record at addressing existential crises already is “abysmal,” as New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen pointed out last week:  “We have responded to crises by exacerbating the fundamental problems of society, including the root causes of the crises themselves. Our response to 9/11 sacrificed civil liberties and human rights. Our response to the financial crisis of 2008 created even more wealth inequality. If our response to the coronavirus pandemic follows the same patterns, it will make previous crises look like child’s play in comparison.”

We simply can’t ignore the climate crisis and other environmental and social challenges as optional conversations during tough times.   We can’t put other pressing issues on hold. Our climate challenges won’t wait as we fight the pandemic.

It is tempting to say the world, environmentally, would be better off without humans than with them.  Witness the changing clearing of the air in China and India given the lack of people moving from place to place and the shutting down of industries.  Yet, humans are part of nature, not separate from it, and human activity that harms the environment also hurts us.  

We need to increase our focus on sustainability. We need to unapologetically talk about climate and sustainability writ large, even as the pandemic rages on.  Doing any less will risk another existential global crisis, one for which there will be no vaccine.

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