Change the dialogue on climate change
Is it any surprise that so many people in the business world say, “Yes, we like the environment; look we have a nice CSR policy. But our primary focus is economic returns and the growth of our business!”
Originally published in Business Today India on 15 January 2017
My colleagues in the environmental movement, echoed by newspapers and policy makers, persist in talking about climate change as an environmental problem, to be covered by the environmental correspondent who is reporting on a speech by the environment minister. Is it any surprise that so many people in the business world say, “Yes, we like the environment; look we have a nice CSR policy. But our primary focus is economic returns and the growth of our business!”
So the first thing we have to do is to surgically remove the conjoined twins of environment and climate change. Of course, climate change is environmental. But it is no less of a security issue and cause of future conflict, which is why Pentagon strategists have been warning for 20 years about coming water wars. And this is a core economic issue, which a recent summary of research by the Delhi think-tank CEEW found could be costing India up to $250 billion per year by the mid century. It should be in the business pages of our newspapers, and not relegated to some environmental supplement.
Nor can anyone afford to think that this is some distant future problem. Climate change is real and accelerating. The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences says that the 12 hottest years ever recorded in India have occurred in the past 15 years. Globally, 2016 is set to be the hottest on record; breaking the previous record set in 2015. The mechanisms of global warming are grounded in basic physics, and are as real as gravity. In order to make intelligent decisions about location and investment, businesses should always ask about the potential role of climate change. I am writing this in Mumbai, and far too few of the investors here are asking whether low lying coastal buildings are going to be a safe long-term investment when we face 40 cm sea-level rise and increasingly extreme monsoons – both, incidentally, predicted to come before mid century.
However, talking about different kinds of risks – even business risk – is still not good enough. Extensive research finds that when climate change is presented solely as a risk, people lose attention and push it away. Finding ever more permutations of risks only makes people less willing to accept it. It is doubling down on a losing strategy.
When I was researching my book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, I spent two years asking some of the world’s leading psychologists why it is so hard for us to accept the threat of climate change when we respond to such alacrity to other threats like terrorism. No one ever asks what are the exact odds or certainty of a terrorist attack, or whether the cost-benefit analysis suggests we should respond. Indeed it seems that many people who reject the existence of climate change, like the US’s president-elect Donald Trump, have bottomless pockets for the so-called ‘War on Terror’.
The problem, the psychologists said, is that climate change simply does not come in a form that triggers our ‘risk detectors’. It does not have a clear enemy with an intention to cause harm – indeed the actions that cause it are part of living, loving and caring for our families. It is dispersed, invisible, and unprecedented. Even those of us who accept the threat need to apply serious and sustained concentration in order to become galvanised into action.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. As any marketer can tell us, people’s purchasing decisions are directed by emotional forces, not data. No one ever asks whether a new kitchen gives ‘a good return on the investment’. No one buys a new car solely by reading the performance stats. In wider life, too, people willingly make sacrifices if it will reinforce their values, strengthen their identity, or make them more the person they aspire to be. Above all, nothing creates a stronger motivation than following our peers who we look up to for our social cues and inspiration.
We must stop talking about climate change as if it is just one thing. We have to find multiple new ways to talk about climate change that speak to people’s distinct and different identities and values. This means that narratives on climate change need to be presented as a distinctly Indian issue, building on the strong sense of optimism and ambition in your rapidly growing country. It can be a distinctly Hindu, Muslim or Sikh issue. Or a distinctly BJP or Congress, conservative or communist, Tamil or Bengali issue. Or a farming, fishing, or trade union issue. In each and every case, it needs to be reframed within the values and concerns of a different audience.
Let us apply the approach to talking about climate change as a distinctly business issue that speaks to the values of business people. Let us start with the sheer opportunity of transferring to a low-carbon economy. The shift from old dirty fossil fuels to new sources of clean energy is now the inexorable process of change in this century. In the past five years alone, the installed solar capacity of India has increased a staggering 400-fold. I am not a businessman, so you do not need me to make the business case – just look at the arguments of your own Make in India campaign or the International Energy Agency, which says that renewable power will be the single largest source of growth in the global electricity sector from now on.
The future in India, as you strive to provide all its people with access to energy, is all the more exciting because you have the opportunity to leapfrog old technologies, and build an energy system that is far more efficient, responsive, and competitive. I hardly need to point out that the shift to mobile phones has revolutionised communications in many parts of the world that have never seen a landline.
Again, you do not have to take my word for it. A report released last year by Goldman Sachs made a very strong case for off-grid connections as the best means to provide access to electricity across rural India.
I stress these values of innovation and social need because I never find, while talking to business people, that their sole motivation is simply the bottom line. Many speak of their long-term desire to leave a legacy that has improved the world. When they look back on their previous work, they talk with greatest pride about achievements based on innovation, and finding new opportunities. Back in 2012, Emerson Electric posted a 10-metre high advert for its heat pumps above the New York Stock Exchange. Its engineering technology systems in China had, the company said, prevented 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. But its slogan was not about profits or dividends; it was, simply, ‘It’s Never Been Done Before’.
So I invite people in the business community to both recognise the fundamental risks of climate change and embrace its opportunities to do something that has ‘never been done before’; that will open up additional benefits in terms of health and well-being, and will contribute to a better future for your fellow citizens.
Far too few people talk about climate change. In my own country, Britain, two-thirds of people have never talked about climate change once in their entire lives. Surveys find that Indians have a high level of awareness about climate change, but I seriously doubt that it often makes itself a topic of business conversation. So please speak out. The leaders of the 21st century will, without question, be those who stand up to be counted and offer positive pathways out of this crisis.
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