Beyond Climate Superlatives

“[This year]…has the distinction of being the year global warming captured the public’s attention. Americans witness an unusually large number of disasters, all symptomatic of what global warming portents. These included a crop-destroying drought that devastated many American farms; raging forest fires that spread uncontrollably through our commercial timber and pristine wilderness; Hurricanes Gilbert and Helene, which ravaged the Caribbean and our southeastern shores and left entire communities homeless; a record heat wave that gripped the nation and intensified the unhealthy effect of urban pollution; and the tragic flooding of Bangladesh.”
– U.S. Representative Claudine Schneider

To the unsuspecting eye, the above paragraph could have been written this year. Simply substitute “Hurricane Gilbert and Helene” with “Hurricane Mathew” and substitute “flooding of Bangladesh” with “flooding of Louisiana” and—eerily—the paragraph could still ring true. In fact, however, Representative Claudine Schneider served from 1981 to 1991 and the above paragraph was written over 25 years ago. I came across it among a series of essays in the book Greenhouse Glasnost.

Frozen in time, the paragraph illustrates the immense struggle we have communicating climate change. We keep repeating ourselves: “the hottest year ever”…”the most devastating flood”…”record breaking”. Apparently, we have subjective memories.

Image Credit: Ahmed Radwan

As the slow-moving force of climate change ploughs forward, we adapt, become focused on more immediate issues. We focus on the extreme moments that grab our attention, rather than the very real, slow changes that are already transforming our systems. But these stories are harder to tell, harder to pull apart from the myriad of systems wrapped together.

To be fair, a lot has changed since 1989. The most obvious difference from the world in Greenhouse Glasnost to the world today is the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the US’s counterpart (though Russia still plays a major role in the world of carbon extraction). And certainly today’s world of climate action has also evolved. There have been giant steps in renewable energy, powerful activism, and thousands of inspiring discussions and actions. My own city of Copenhagen is investing heavily in blue green infrastructure to manage extreme cloud bursts and storm water runoff.

Yet for all the swelling momentum, we are still on a baseline path. We’re still debating the basic physics and arguing over 1.5 degrees C versus 2. The systemic changes needed to avert the worst of climate change are not happening fast enough. And as climate change steepens, action will only be harder and more expensive.

We have to shift our climate communication beyond the echoing stream of superlatives, abstract numbers, or brittle metrics.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if 2016 or 2017 was the hottest year ever. It doesn’t matter if the Paris agreement is aiming for 2 degrees C or 1.5. It doesn’t matter if Tesla fits a 35 MPG regulation.

We have to stop relying on numbers alone to motivate and measure our progress. Climate change will continue to affect and threaten our systems until we stop putting carbon in places where it becomes a toxin (e.x. the atmosphere or our oceans).

Image Credit: Matt Jones

I’ve recently been inspired by Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations, a book looking at managing styles for ‘soulful’ organisations. Rather than KPIs, or hierarchal score-keeping, Laloux promotes shifts to small, decentralized teams. Teams that are bound by strong, underlying cultures and values. Teams that manage themselves, set their own metrics, and still manage to achieve profits and goals at aggregate scales.

How could this be translated to climate action? Can we agree to an underlying culture of values—values that are optimistic, rooted in action not fear, and independent of metrics? Can smaller, distributed teams (businesses, industries, etc.) adopt these values and set their own internal goals to achieve a future that is less threatened by climate change? Instead of talking about climate superlatives and metrics, can we promote stories and examples that exemplify these values?

We need a list of values that shift the conversation—values that are optimistic and rooted in action.

Our future is low-carbon.

The base solution to the climate crisis is that we have to stop putting carbon and GHG emissions in places where they pollute (i.e. our atmosphere) and we have to stop depleting our natural carbon sinks (i.e. deforestation). No one sector is going to magically achieve this alone. Each industry, each company, each community has a transition to make—a contribution that can reverberate and support others within our interlaced web of systems.

Active change is better than uprooting devastation.

Change is scary, but destruction is devastating. As humans we are creatures of comfort who are drawn to familiarity and security. Yet we are also masters of our destiny and shapers of our futures—our history is a continuum of change. Rather than let climate change wreak uncontrollable damage and force us to change after great suffering, we have the ability to control the change and shape our future.

Means matter, especially in the short-term.

How we get somewhere matters. Everything we do has a carbon footprint, so we need to minimize that footprint for larger systems gains in future resiliency and carbon neutrality. This means NOT building new pipelines, or natural gas plants, or fracking. Those will release more carbon to be burned and lock in decades of use. It also means evaluating the life cycles of products (and processes) and identifying the ‘hot-spots’ that can be minimized. And, where possible, this also means minimizing the amount of meat we eat, flying less, or not buying as many new things.

These values are predominantly aimed at businesses. We live in the systems we built, redesigning these systems will be more effective than asking billions of individuals to change their actions within the old systems. Yes, our individual actions matter (hence why we should try to minimize our carbon pollution), but there are some massive system effects that need to be actively re-designed as well.

Ideally the umbrella values would serve as a framework for a multitude of distributed industries, sectors, communities, etc. to drive innovation in organic, ways.

If I think of my own design team, I would translate the umbrella values into four goals:

  • We don’t profit from companies that work directly with the extraction of fossil fuels or the demolition of carbon sinks.
  • We work with partners that have a mission-level commitment to minimising their carbon influence.
  • Our work focuses on system-level shifts to greater resiliency and lower GHG emissions.
  • We’re aware of our own carbon footprint and are minimizing our ‘hot spots’.