The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set up at the Earth Summit in 1992. That's 21 years ago and where are we? Atmospheric carbon levels have just hit 400ppm for the first time in human history and emissions show no sign of slowing. We're running out of time.
Is it time to admit that, no matter how many international jamborees held or acronyms forged, trying to agree an over-reaching framework of targets, processes and systems that will satisfy Beijing, Washington and Dar es Salaam just ain't gonna happen?
On the other hand, we know what will happen if we don't have some form of international agreement. Nations that take action will lose polluting industries to those who won't, creating to a race to the bottom and no reduction in emissions. The Tragedy of the Commons writ large.
This is a conundrum I've been wrestling with for a long time and I've come to the conclusion that simplicity is the answer. Just think about when you get overwhelmed at work - trying to do too many things at once just leads to you rushing around like a headless chicken and getting nowhere fast. The only solution is to list what needs doing, pick the one which will give you the biggest return on your efforts, and focus on that 'til it's done.
So if you could pick just one thing to do on the climate, what would it be?
My vote goes for a carbon tax in every nation. A carbon tax is very simple, penalises carbon intensive energy (eg coal) more than cleaner energy sources (renewables), and some countries have already gone down this route so we have some experience to build on. If every UNFCCC country committed to impose a carbon tax then, in theory, there would be no carbon 'leakage' as industries would find a similar regime in place wherever they went. Nations could spend the revenue raised as they see fit to avoid 'World Government'-type paranoia.
In order to prevent poor countries being penalised, the level of taxation in each country could be linked to per capita GDP. This could lead to limited carbon leakage initially, but growth and carbon emissions would be decoupled.
This approach would lead to immediate action on carbon emissions, rather than arguing over targets which, once agreed, might lead to reduced emissions at some point in the future - and might not.
Once a such a global carbon tax agreement was agreed and implemented, then the UNFCCC could start looking at other issues one by one, such as protection of forests, targets, development mechanisms etc. These would have to play second fiddle in the medium term, but at least we'd have one practical measure up and running and cutting carbon, rather than yet another avalanche of position papers.
So let's keep it simple and actually do something. Carbon taxes for all!
Margaret Thatcher, who died today, was one of the most divisive political leaders of our time with people either loving or hating her with equal passion. I must be one of the tiny minority that is ambivalent to her legacy.
As the son of a self-employed couple and who runs his own business, it would churlish not to acknowledge I have benefited massively from her economic liberalism. On the other hand, living in the North East of England I can see first hand the destruction that liberalism did to traditional heavy industries - and, Nissan at Washington aside, the lack of anything to replace those industries. This has led the demise of the proud blue collar worker and the disintegration of many communities.
But one of Mrs Thatcher's more unexpected legacies is that she remains Britain's greenest Prime Minister. She was the first to warn openly of the dangers of climate change in a speech to the UN in 1989, saying:
"We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere... The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto."
She set up the Hadley Centre to study climate change which has informed all progress and legislation since. The Green movement hates to admit it, but Mrs Thatcher set the ball rolling.
This led to one of the more bizarre climate change denial theories - as put forward in The Great Global Warming Swindle - that Thatcher invented climate change to destroy the coal industry and its Unions. This is despite the fact she pretty much did that 5 years previously in the Miners' strike.
Right-wing climate change deniers have tried to reclaim her since, but no British Prime Minister has nailed their colours to the mast so vividly. Major, Blair and Brown said nothing. David Cameron may have declared he would lead "the greenest Government ever" but he has barely managed to pay lip service since.
Cameron would do well to emulate his heroine, as Mrs Thatcher never did anything halfheartedly. Love her or hate her, you cannot accuse Mrs T of lacking in the leadership that we now need so badly.
One of the most interesting debates at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) was which is the most pressing industry for business - maintaining a sustainable supply of raw materials, water and energy, or climate change? I must admit it was a little naughty of me instigating it as there is no simple answer, but sometimes I like being a bit naughty.
It's a tricky one because they're quite different issues:
A resource crunch can happen suddenly, the climate changes gradually;
A resource crunch will affect a business directly, but climate change impacts will occur over a wide geography and will hit some individuals and organisations more than others;
A resource crunch will have much more predictable impacts, climate change depends on lots of different factors;
A resource crunch is arguably simpler to address through substitution, whereas climate change requires concerted effort across the globe.
A resource crunch is much easier to understand and communicate than climate change;
A resource crunch is more difficult to argue against than climate change (although some do try).
It may be, of course, that given the relative ease of getting action on a resource crunch, the crafty sustainability practitioner may want to use that to get a foot in the door of the boardroom and other citadels of power, and then expand the sustainability conversation to cover other issues. Sometimes it pays to be a little bit naughty.
"is that they're not stories about the sufferings or triumphs of individual, knowable humans.They're failures of complex systems: millions of individuals are affected, but in incremental, widely dispersed ways; in the case of global warming, most of those millions aren't even born yet."
He goes on to say:
"The economist Tyler Cowen rightly warns that our addiction to stories is dangerous. Stories strip facts away, dragging attention to what's most narratively satisfying, not what's most important. One of the least appetising tasks of the journalist, I can say from experience, is the struggle to combat this by injecting "the human element" into news that doesn't naturally possess it. The results are often painful."
While I agree with the analysis, I disagree completely with the prognosis. If human beings are so obsessed with stories - and I spend a huge amount of time reading them to my kids (see pic) - then lets embrace that to communicate climate change and sustainability, as resistance is futile.
You see time and time again organisations trying to communicate sustainability by bombarding the reader with facts, occasionally leavened with classroom comparisons - "that's the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road" etc. Trying to convert everybody into fully educated climate scientists, energy economists and environmental toxicologists is an impossible and pointless task. You don't need to understand the albedo effect to choose the most energy efficient equipment for your company.
My green jujitsu approach says "if they like stories, give 'em stories!" Turn sustainability challenges and solutions into stories of individuals' challenges, endeavours and resolutions. Add humour for extra zing. Leave the detailed stats and analysis for Burkeman and the rest of us geeks - unless of course you are dealing with geeks, then fact away!
So sang Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy back in 1929 about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but you may be more familiar with Led Zeppelin's epic 1971 interpretation with its grinding apocalyptic groove. The words and the nagging sense of impending disaster strike a chord as I write this while trundling across England by train - almost every low lying field is a lake and rivers have burst their banks. I'm on my way to Taunton for a client meeting, but I fear that Somerset may be completely submerged - the train is stopping at Bristol.
Mark my words, the ducks will inherit the earth.
The floods will inevitably, and rightly, lead to calls for more flood defences, compensation and for them to "do something". And it is clear that, if this is the climatic path we are now locked into, we have got to act. How vulnerable are our homes, offices, warehouses, factories and farms? What damage can unpredictable weather cause to our operations, logistics and communications? What will it cost individuals, organisations and the economy?
Sustainability is not just about trying to do damage, but about adapting to the new realities - whether it's resilience to extreme weather or the erosion of the resource base we depend upon. Those are big threats, but of course they are business opportunities too. That might sound cynical, but if enough entrepreneurial business identify and exploit these openings, it will help us all in the long term.
Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
One of the most frustrating things about this business is the politicisation of environmental issues, and how difficult this makes getting objective analyses. Whether you want a view on climate change, acid rain or peak oil, objectivity seems in short supply. Distorted graphs, cherrypicked data and straw man arguments are plastered across the web and much of the media.
For example I read a piece on peak oil this week which described the concept as "idiocy" as oil "will never run out" because long before it did, prices would rise and force investment in alternative energy sources. Er, that's peak oil theory you're agreeing with there, pal, if you bothered to find out what it actually is.
Readers of my books will have seen a version of these perceptions of the environment (the red ball) in a slightly different format. The three here are:
Individualist: believes the environment is robust and there to be exploited - the red ball will always roll back to the safe centre - typical of free marketeers and those who 'disbelieve' in climate change;
Hierarchist: believes the environment can be exploited within safe limits - the red ball is OK unless you push it too far - typical of Governments and scientists;
Egalitarian: believes the environment is fragile and should be protected at all costs - the red ball is doomed if you move it even slightly - typical of green pressure groups.
The problem with the extreme mindsets is that people tend to develop them and stick to them tribally, exaggerating data which supports their position and ignoring anything that disagrees with it - a phenomena known as confirmation bias. Conflict happens when the hierarchists start to see society nearing one of the safe limits - then from the viewpoint of the individualists, they start to look like the destested egalitarians and all hell breaks loose.
I find all this tremendously frustrating, as I'm basically a hierarchist and I'd really like to know where exactly we are in relation to, say, peak oil. It takes too long to check out every 'sceptical' argument from individualists or wild claim from egalitarians yourself (and I've been through a hell of a lot of them on climate change), so it comes down to trying to find someone you trust to be objective. So I have these rough rules of thumb:
Never trust a think tank or pressure group - you can tell what the Adam Smith Institute and Greenpeace's position will be on renewable energy before you open the report, so why bother?
Dismiss any argument derived solely from commentators - if anyone validates an argument using either James Delingpole's or George Monbiot's words (to pick two from opposite ends of the spectrum above) then I stick my fingers in my ears and sing "la, la, la";
Peer reviewed science is more reliable than non-peer reviewed science, but peer review in itself doesn't mean it is 'right';
Consensus of evidence is more important than consensus of opinion. The important point about climate change science is not so much that 98% of qualified scientists believe climate change is real and manmade, but that they can validate the theory using lots of different methods and evidence;
Analyses which acknowledge their own limitations and provide error bars etc are usually more reliable than those which don't;
Watch out for University press releases which are increasingly often exaggerating the findings of 'controversial' academic papers to make them more newsworthy (which is a disgrace and undermines the whole idea of scholarship);
Any piece which contains personal abuse should be disregarded, especially if evokes the Nazis.
So in the big green battle in the UK's Coalition Government, it looks like round 1 to Energy and Climate Change Secretary (and my political colleague) Ed Davey (right), who announced today that cuts to onshore wind subsidy would be limited to 10%, not the 25% called for by backbench Conservative MPs who were given a sympathetic ear by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (left).
However Davey might have taken a couple of telling body blows during the opening exchanges, according to details leaked to the Financial Times. It is not clear what deal was done, but the concession may have been an open door to cheap unabated gas, which could compromise progress to hit climate change targets at a later date.
This is a fascinating battle - and one which Davey was predicted to lose. But I know Ed and, while he is less combative than his predecessor Chris Huhne, he does have a reputation for being quietly effective. But this is also an interesting case study for those trying to implement radical changes to deliver sustainability in their own organisation.
Traditionally Governements haven taken a very incremental approach to environmental protection. This changed with the previous Labour Government's Climate Change Act in 2008 which committed the Government to deliver a 'legally binding' 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050. Despite this bold stretch target, with the notable exception of Ed Miliband's Feed In Tariff, the administration did not make much progress in terms of practical policy measures to meet it.
So the Coalition inherited a stretch target, but there are clear differences in how (or even whether) to meet it. There are those, mainly on the Conservative backbenches, who would simply scrap it. At the other end of the spectrum there's a cross-party group keen to tackle the challenge head-on - Lib Dems Huhne, Davey and Conservatives such as Tim Yeo and Greg Barker. In between are those who see their role to moderate the debate such as Osborne (who I am reliably informed is not quite as anti-green as portrayed in the media). The problem with this latter position is it takes us back to the incremental tit-for-tat pre-Climate Change Act approach.
So how would I tackle the problem? First, as Davey has done, dig the heels in for the short term at least - 'wins' secured now will have a much bigger impact than 'losses' in the future. Secondly, use some green jujitsu to play to Osborne's interests, reframing the argument from "low carbon or growth" to "low carbon growth or business as usual stagnation." The green sector grew 5% last year - growth Osborne would kill for in the rest of the economy. So play down climate change in the internal debates and make arguments along this line - eg jobs, exports, growth, energy security, innovation, technology etc - all things to attract the attention of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Thirdly, back this up with evidence from the respected International Energy Agency to keep the Treasury geeks happy.
I'm sure this battle will run and run, but the key will be to fight smart and fight hard.
Phew! I'm back on line. Last Wednesday morning Sod's Law kicked in big time - the one day of the month I need uninterrupted internet access for the two Green Academy webinars, it won't respond. Dead.
I spent an hour panicking calmly working my way through pages of geekorrhea before giving up and using my fall back system - my 3G laptop dongle. Apart from one glitch, it worked fine, although I found out afterwards that it ran perilously close to my monthly limit.
Virgin Media were great - they immediately tested my system remotely, found my ancient modem had transmitted its last, and put another one in the post for me immediately. I plugged it in, rang a number to authenticate it and bingo, here I am!
This all got me thinking about business resilience. The 50 year lag between a molecule of carbon dioxide leaving a power station chimney or a car exhaust means that no matter what we do to cut carbon now, there is a truckload of global warming already locked into the system - unless of course a geoengineering technology comes good and finds a way of stopping.
The problem with planning adaption to climate change is unpredictability. Thomas Friedman coined the apposite phrase 'global weirding' to describe what we get locally when the world warms as a whole. In the UK we got savage winters at the end of 2009 and 2010 as weather patterns got locked in a configuration which sucked arctic air down over the country for months. Local authorities who had assumed that harsh winters were a thing of the past soon ran out of road grit. In 2011, the same thing happened but the configuration was a mirror image so we got mild air from the south - the grit piles went unused. The physical difference between the two was minimal, yet the results couldn't have been more different.
I would recommend that any organisation has a Plan B for operations under different scenarios to cover data security, electronic communications, extreme weather, physical logistics and energy security. But those scenarios must be cognisant of the unpredictability of what a global trend will turn out like locally.
I don't tend to read many "green" books these days - not because I think I know it all, but because I'm topping up my knowledge everyday simply by doing my job, so sitting down in the evening and opening a weighty tome at p1 is less than appealing. However, I had heard a lot about these two titles so I read them back to back. On the face of it the two cover similar ground - charting the scale of the environmental challenge and what we need to do to fix it, but they go about their jobs in quite different ways.
Hot, Flat & Crowded by Thomas Friedman is a few years old now (I picked up my copy in a second hand book stall at my son's school), but I had somehow managed to avoid the works of this pillar of US green thinking. The book is very well researched and covers a huge amount of ground including some concepts I was unfamiliar with such as "Dutch Disease" - the negative impact of sudden discoveries of natural resources - and the link between human rights in OPEC countries and the price of oil. Friedman's main thesis is that while the US is addicted to oil it will never free itself from the threat from militant Islam and will end up getting crushed by the Chinese economic juggernaut. Maybe it was Friedman's assumption of a US readership, or the reliance on lengthy quotes from the good and the great from around the world, but frankly I found reading Hot, Flat & Crowded a bit of a trudge.
You can't say the same about Mark Lynas' zippy new book The God Species. The thesis here is that as we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power, to stop the damage before it is too late. Lynas uses the Planetary Boundaries Group's set of 10 9 global environmental pressures to assess the threat from everything from climate change to loss of freshwater before proposing the most effective way of dealing with each problem. While doing so he lays into right-wing anti-environmental libertarians and left-wing greenies with equal abandon, arguing that the former ignore the science on the problems, but the latter similarly ignore the evidence on the most promising solutions. Not content with lauding the green bogeymen nuclear and GM, he delights in proposing water privatisation, carbon offsetting and geoengineering techniques - all anathema to the green movement.
Overall I found The God Species refreshing, entertaining and informative - certainly enhancing my knowledge of the nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification to name but two. Lynas (and indeed Friedman) is one of an emerging breed of what I call 'rational environmentalists' who say "forget the politics and the sacred cows, look at the facts, find the solutions that work". I too have long believed that while the political green movement may have done great work flagging up problems, they are hamstrung by their own dogma when it comes to solutions - nothing is ever good enough for them. That's not to say I'm swallowing Lynas' conclusions wholesale just yet - there is a faint whiff of wilful contrarianism about the book that makes me want to seek out second opinions - but he has certainly made me challenge some of my own shibboleths, and that's never a bad thing.
The God Species: a must read.
Hot, Flat & Crowded: ideal for American students of geopolitics.
Just this weekend, my partner and I were chatting about the UK petrol protests of 2000 (it's laugh a minute in our house sometimes...). At the time my partner was working in Poland for a week and couldn't believe my reports from home - empty petrol stations, empty roads, no fresh fruit in the supermarkets and semi-panic buying of staple foods - all within a couple of days of fuel depots getting picketed. This small action had a massive impact on business, communities and individuals. It was a graphic demonstration of how vulnerable our modern economy is to quite minor events.
As chance would have it, Chatham House has released a report today suggesting our economy has taken 'just in time' to an extreme, leaving it vulnerable to low-probability/high-impact events like the Icelandic volcano, the Japanese earthquake and the 2004 tsunami. But, the report notes, there are also concerns about the resilience to high-probability/incremental impact environmental issues like climate change, resource depletion and water pressures.
We are seeing the pressures of unsustainability across the economy with energy prices having a higher impact on the economy than Government spending cuts. The big question for individual organisations is "are we resilient to these sudden and long term events?"
The subsidiary questions are:
What will rising energy bills do to our business?
What will scarcity of resources like rare earth metals do to our business?
What will scarcity of water do to our business?
What would legislation designed to protect or ration natural resources do to our business?
What would the impact of more extreme weather events be on our business?
Are our data and other resources safe from, say, increased flood risk?
Do we have contingency plans in place for, say, expected lack of travel?
Of course the flip side to this is providing resilience to others as a business offering. As the effects of climate change and resource depletion ratchet up, this will be a growing market.
So something has finally been agreed. Governments have agreed to make an agreement by 2015 which will come into force by 2020. Ministers are jubilant. Pressure groups say it is not enough. Plus ça change!
Here's my thoughts:
Global agreements will always suffer from a degree of lowest common denominator - keeping Washington, Beijing, Brussels and New Delhi happy is an almost impossible task;
Agreements, agreements under negotiation, or lack of agreements should not be seen as an excuse for lack of domestic action (are you listening George O?);
That doesn't just go for Governments - there's nothing to stop organisations and individuals acting either;
The main purpose of international agreements should be to put a brake on 'carbon leakage' (ie migration of 'dirty' industries) from one country with high standards to one with lower standards - this is the only risk of a country going it alone;
Governments are best placed to decarbonise through the markets - particularly using their own colossal buying power. If you want industry's attention, make low carbon a prerequisite of doing business - you then stimulate innovation and cut emissions;
Business is better placed to cut carbon than Government. If captains of industry decide they will, say, go zero carbon, you will see a lot of change happen very quickly - they don't have to worry what the Daily Moan will say about it. Supply chains are global, so one big buyer in the West can affect emissions around the world.
So I am neither excited nor depressed by the news from Durban. Those of us working to cut emissions will just keep on doing so!
Regular readers will know I'm a big, big fan of TED talks - I thrive on the optimism, insight and eloquence of the speakers. This one, by Johan Rockstrom, is another gem. I spend so much time reading, writing and discussing sustainability, it really takes something to grab my attention, but Rockstrom manages it. He quantifies all the major environmental pressures, shows how they almost all accelerated in the mid-50s, and demonstrates how many can simply be solved. I love his pronouncement that we are living in the most exciting decade in human existence as we try and 'bend the curve' back towards sustainability. Highly recommended.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is fast becoming the scariest organisation in the world - almost every press release contains extraordinarily bad news - that peak oil probably occurred back in 2006, that the price of oil is going to undermine any global economic recovery and, now, that 2010 saw record carbon emissions making hitting the 2°C target almost impossible. While there's a strong temptation to hide our head in the sand in the face of such a stark warning, the only sane response is to up our game.
Here's a mini-manifesto for progress:
1. Stop finger pointing: sustainability is everybody's responsibility - Governments, business, the media, civil society and individual citizens. Playing the blame game just slows us down, waiting for others to act will get us nowhere, sitting on a high horse is for pompous fools;
2. Be practical: let's bin the political ideology, sacred cows and conspiracy theories that clog both sides of the environmental debate and do what works;
3. Be ambitious: for all the posturing, most environmental improvements are merely incremental. Let's stretch ourselves and use ingenuity, determination and vision to get us out of the hole we're digging for ourselves;
4. Be prepared to pull the plug. Face up to the fact we're going to have to stop doing some stuff - sustainability is not just about starting to do good stuff, but phasing out bad stuff;
5. Relish the challenge and enjoy the ride. If others see you enjoying making your household, your neighbourhood, your organisation or the whole world a better place, they're far more likely to join in.
This isn't going to be easy, but as the great philosopher Billy Ocean once sang, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
So, Cancun produced something after all. Not an awful lot, it has to be said, but there is a definite narrowing of the agenda to a framework where more concrete actions can be worked up. The clearest sections are the $100m fund to help poorer countries cut carbon and adapt to climate change, and the forestry package (known as REDD) to help preserve forests. Everybody seems relieved that progress has been made - only Bolivia and a handful of NGOs are throwing their hands up in despair - saying the world has failed once again.
These professional negativists are never happy - ignore them. When my city of Newcastle was awarded 'UK's most sustainable city' by Forum for the Future for the second time, the local Green Party didn't even mention it in their newsletter (which they send me). When I challenged them, they said they believed it showed we were 'least bad' - OK you could argue that, but surely such progress was worth a mention by a group for whom sustainability is the raison d'être. I rather suggest that they are hiding from an inconvenient truth - that environmental purism doesn't deliver whereas environmental pragmatism does.
And I know I keep banging on about it, but slow international progress doesn't preclude fast local or organisational progress. And here too pragmatism and optimism rule the day. Ignore the doomsters, or better still, get them involved so they can understand the real messy world of imperfection in which the rest of us have to operate. Then they might get real.
It's been quite hard to get a real feel for progress at the COP16 climate change negotiations in Cancun this week, but the overall impression has been slow progress on a number of issues and a more reasoned debate over some of the bigger issues. This contrasts starkly with the high stakes game played by national leaders and environmental groups in Copenhagen this time last year - which famously ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The softly, softly approach has a number of advantages. Minor disputes are not exaggerated by a story-hungry media and can be deftly resolved. Small wins create forward momentum and a positive atmosphere which can help unlock trickier conundrums. Progress can be made without the often destructive interference of either the NGO or libertarian/denial camps, one shrieking the clock is ticking and less than 100% success is failure, the other shrieking that the whole thing is a recipe for economic suicide/communism.
However, I'm still of the view that a world-wide single binding agreement is an impossible ideal. What works in Washington is unlikely to work in Kuala Lumpur and vice versa. There is nothing to stop individual nations cutting their own carbon and shifting to a low carbon economy. Furthermore, the big economies along with their huge corporations, have such global reach that the power to act is actually in relatively few hands. Destructive companies in the primary industries like forestry or oil extraction can only operate if they have customers willing to buy their produce.
Business has the power if they step up to the plate.
It feels a bit weird to be reading about the climate change talks in balmy Cancun when looking out the window at a foot of snow and wearing two pairs of trousers. But the current cold period in the UK, like the freezing winter at the start of the year, is a great illustration of the difference between short term, local weather and the long term global climate patterns which are likely to make 2010 the warmest year on record.
Hopes aren't high for Cancun - with very little progress has been made since Copenhagen last year and with Obama further weakened by the Tea Party's gains in the mid term elections. Of course there's nothing to stop individual countries acting, but my hopes are increasingly with business to bail us out. To the green activist corps this probably sounds like a crazy notion, but, I would ask them, who really controls the global supply chains? Who chooses what we consumers can or cannot buy and at what price? Who develops and commercialises green technologies? Who can act quickly and decisively without fearing electoral backlash? Business, that's who.
There's a story in the Independent this week that upgrades to the UK's electricity grid will cost £32bn, part of an estimated £200bn that will be required to hit the country's climate change targets for 2020. The £32bn will add £6 per year to the average electricity bill, yet it is being portrayed as an obstacle or some great painful sacrifice.
Just £6 a head a year to make such a huge leap forwards in tackling climate change? Is that all? Given the risks of doing nothing, I'd say that was a bargain.
And just think, that's a £32-200bn clean tech market to deliver the transformation. Just when we need to build a greener, more robust economy to get us out of the current economic pickle.
What's not to like?
On the wider scale, this shows once again we have got to flip our attitudes from seeing the problems to seeing the opportunity. Optimism is a rare commodity in the environmental movement, but whether we are looking at one country's infrastructure or one company's environmental strategy, we have got to get much better at, as sausage manufacturers would say, "selling the sizzle."
The other evening I watched The Road, the post-apocalyptic movie based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The plot involves the attempt by a father and son to escape an unnamed catastrophe which has killed off every living thing except people. Survivors have either turned cannibal, or, like the father and son, scavenge for tinned food amongst the wreckage of small town America and the dead forests of the surrounding countryside.
Not a bad film, but portraying such utter dystopia leaves me in two minds. The first thought is that it was a powerful reminder that we rely on the eco-system for all our essentials, one which we often forget as we in the West spend most of our time inside and increasingly on-line. If it goes we go. But this is balanced by the nagging thought that this kind of "it'll be our DOOM!" type message is misleading and off putting to the general populace. The earth will recover from climate change, but in its own time. The big question is whether society can continue to thrive in warming world.
You can see this problem in the slight repositioning of many of the climate change denial brigade. They seem to have invented something called 'catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)' which the rest of us apparently believe in. I assume the introduction of the word "catastrophic" is to give them wriggle room as the fundamental science of climate change stands up to the huge scrutiny put on it over the last year. We might have melting glaciers, disrupted weather patterns, floods, droughts and heatwaves - but if the result doesn't look like The Road then they'll claim it was all exaggerated (tell that to the people of the flooded Sind province of Pakistan).
It is becoming a cliché, but we really do need a more positive view of sustainability and the low carbon economy. I believe this vision needs to go further than the 'green jobs' that politicians fall back on. What about vibrant cities full of pedestrians, cyclists and urban greenery? What about people working from home, cutting crime in their neighbourhoods simply by being there, revitalising the local economy and getting to know their neighbours? What about holidays on high speed rail bringing back the romance of travel? What about being able to park outside your house because no-one needs a second car?
And for business? The same positive vision needs to be applied both inside and outside the business. Companies need to lead on this agenda and develop those products and services that are not just green in themselves, but that go further and help other people cut their emissions and improve their lives. I saw a TV ad for Hitachi at the weekend that showed the difference that their technologies - from high speed trains to data centres - could make to carbon emissions. It was great, positive stuff and no hand wringing or hair shirts in sight. That's the future I want.
Russia is burning (and choking), Pakistan is drowning - major humanitarian disasters which are likely to be in part due to climate change as Pakistan is effectively getting the rain that the Russian plains should have had. A similar thing happened in the UK this winter - we got Arctic weather stuck over us for weeks, while the Arctic had abnormally high temperatures. While the usual caveat must be rolled out - we can't attribute any one event to climate change - the frequency of such events is increasing as the science would suggest.
Climate change mitigation (cutting carbon emissions) is a medium term measure, but it must be backed up by adaptation measures for the short (and medium) term impacts which are already in the system. Adaptation is normally considered at the regional/national scale, but what about individual organisations? Are you prepared for climate change? Would you be resilient to extreme heat or cold? Are your data servers in your basement and vulnerable to flooding? Are your raw materials grown in a climate sensitive area? After all, Russia has announced restrictions on grain exports.
Of course we can flip this around to the positive. Have you a design, a product or a service to help make organisations, regions or whole countries resilient to climate change? Can you spot a gap in the market? Will climate change produce gaps in global markets for, say, food stuffs? This may sound mercenary, but a robust response to climate change will involve the markets as much as it does disaster relief organisations.
So whether climate change is an opportunity or a threat to your business, you should be factoring it into your business planning.