Who’s to blame for the climate COP out in Glasgow?
The underwhelming final results of the COP26 climate change conference reminded me of the old joke:
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but the light bulb has to want to change.
It is basic psychology that none of us want to admit we are wrong, we can think up a zillion reasons why something isn’t our fault, and plenty of excuses why we don’t have to change. Having worked in change management for Sustainability for more than two decades, it was no real surprise to me that Australia, China and India, whose economies are highly coal-dependent, insisted on watering down the coal elements of the COP26 final declaration, that the US and Germany weren’t keen on taking a hard line on the motor industry – and there are plenty of voices telling affluent consumers that they have no responsibility for the climate emergency – it’s all the evil fossil fuel industry (it takes two to tango IMHO – no evil oil magnate ever forced me onto a plane, although some are undoubtedly of dubious morality).
As regular readers know, I try not to point the finger of blame at any particular person or organisation. Instead I try to identify who needs to change and how to get them to change. This is a real challenge as, in the words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” There are two effective, and mutually supportive, ways to overcome this wilful blindness in the face of the world’s biggest challenge:
- Engineer a Damascene conversion. I do this, not by tub-thumping or moralising, but by asking people why they should take Sustainability seriously, then shutting up and listening to the answers – trust me it works. There are other proven techniques such as volunteering people for, say, a sustainability presentation or getting them to experience the reality of climate change (more difficult), but the essential element is they have to sell Sustainability to themselves. Global leaders are currently aware they need to do something about carbon emissions, but a much more fundamental, emotional and personal buy-in is required for rapid change to happen – maybe the next COP should be held on a melting glacier;
- Change the landscape so Sustainability is the logical way forward – for key individual employees, make sure Sustainability targets are embedded into their personal objectives, for countries, embed it into trade agreements and supply chain requirements. Imagine if the fashion industry, instead of mucking about with hiring posh gowns, insisted that all their clothing be manufactured using 100% certified renewable energy? Or Apple and the other electronics companies did the same with their products? The nations whose industries depend on manufacturing (India, China) would have to sit up and listen. Cities around the world are currently delivering mass behaviour change by shifting the use of public space away from the motor car and towards active travel, making it easier for people to do what you’d like them to and more difficult to stick to the old ways – Paris is a shining example.
Sustainability is all about change management and change management is all about psychology.