Climate Change: Charades, Taboos and Resets

Another Place. Antony Gormley

I had a liberating experience discussing climate change earlier this year. I am a trustee and volunteer at a charity that for years has been focussed on tackling the climate emergency. It is co-leading the campaign against the construction of a new coal mine in the north of England.

We had a session with our members and supporters to discuss what our next priorities should be to address the climate emergency. They said our priorities  should be on adaptation: making the town and its citizens resilient to climate change. The members also said we should be more honest in communicating what’s actually happening. And we should keep fighting against fossil fuel projects.

So this is the view from the ground. From a town that was the first in the UK to set up a citizens climate jury. It’s a view that is both liberating and realistic. It contrasts with the global discourse which is increasingly becoming an elaborate charade.

I don’t mean that with any disrespect to the many people, and many former colleagues who are tirelessly and optimistically working at the international level. This is not a criticism of what has been done. It’s just that a change in direction, emphasis and narrative on climate change are all sorely needed. The current strategies are not working fast enough. They may even be becoming counter-productive. So what’s to be done? Here are a few ideas for business.

Act on Forecasts not Dreams

It is time for the NGOs, think tanks, consultancies and business platforms to articulate a more honest narrative on climate. In the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow, the talk was about ‘keeping 1.5° alive’. One year on, respected organisations are still putting out reports appealing for more urgency. And providing ever more unrealistic ‘this is what is needed’ insights, analyses and strategies. No-one I have spoken to this year believes in this anymore.

The taboo needs to be broken. Its time to focus more on the most likely climate outcome: 2.6°-3.2° of heating. Which is not to suggest taking our eye off the ball of preventing every fraction of a degree of future global heating.

Presumably somewhere in air-conditioned rooms, groups of people are now working on a new consensus, ambition and rallying cry. Its already too late to adopt a 2° threshold: that feels like going back to the future. The Race to Resilience is welcome, but feels like a coalition of coalitions. People on the ground want honesty, not cheerleading. Lets find a way to focus on outcomes, impacts, and actions that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Such as fossil fuel non-proliferation. 

Focus on Fossil Fuels and NDCs

“Net-zero” needs to be put back into its box. As I have written before, “The original intent of ‘Net Zero’ – to create corporate action to push for government action has been captured by corporate marketing departments. This is diverting attention from what is really needed.”

Which is that businesses should set targets for when they will be free of fossil fuels from their Scopes 1, 2 and 3. We need them to provide quarterly reporting on progress.

The other reason for dialling back on ‘not-zero’ is that it has had an unintended consequence. Governments don’t feel the need to play their part when the impression is that business will do the hard lifting. The spotlight needs to be put back on Governments to do what they have to.

Companies should reinforce not deflect from Government efforts. Corporate reporting on climate activities needs to explicitly demonstrate, country by country, how companies are contributing to individual government NDCs.


Reducing demand urgently needs to be put centre stage. Despite being highlighted by the IPCC, demand reduction does not feature in any of the recent reports and corporate narratives I have seen. Clearly its uncomfortable: it questions the basis of the mainstream economic model. Yet it is also a good time to do this as we struggle through late-stage capitalism. Its not more growth we need; its less, better directed growth.

So its timely that the idea of degrowth is making a return, this time with more academic rigour, and more diverse voices getting behind it. Degrowth is not about less of the same. It is about growing the things that are needed for societal wellbeing, equity and nature; accompanied by a shrinkage of the unnecessary activities in rich nations that are not delivering societal wellbeing.

There is much still to work out, not least the details of what and how. However, we only need to observe the per-capita consumption and emissions of the top 1% of society to get some clues where to start: private jets, SUVs, built-in obsolescence, and the creation of desire for the next new thing.

A Just Transition

At COP26 there was a new found enthusiasm by companies for ‘just transition’. They are now busy interpreting what it means for their own internal audiences and external positioning. Often simplified to mean ‘leave no-one behind’, it actually goes beyond a few add-ons to the content of climate roadmaps.

Embracing ‘just transition’ will be less about adjusting current business practices, and more about intentionally changing them. If companies are serious about a just transition this will involve placing a scrutiny on the economic model we are following. An economic model which is reliant upon extractive approaches to both the environment and labour. Degrowth provides a way to approach this by creating a planned, democratic and therefore, just and equitable approach to tackling climate change.

Avoiding Climate Tunnel Vision

Its surprising how climate change is now the primary lens through which many companies view the broad range of sustainability challenges they face. Its hard to understand if this laser focus on climate is just a question of the attention pendulum swinging too far one way, or is based upon a more sinister ‘intending the unintended consequences’.

Either way it is leading to (some) companies ignoring or conveniently shifting their gaze from potentially more significant issues such as biodiversity, living income and inequality.

I have written before about the ability of us all to address only a few big issues at once, as well as the interconnectedness and complexity of sustainability issues. Approaches to sustainability (and climate) need more nuance, balance and logic.


How many complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle?

This question was front of mind earlier this year as my daughter received her masters degree. For her thesis she analysed the international climate change process from Copenhagen to Paris. She wanted to understand what changed between these two meetings that allowed the global community to move from complete failure to modest success. Then she related those insights to the efforts to get an effective implementation of the global compact on forced migration and the rights of refugees.

It’s an interesting comparison. There are many similarities between these two topics in terms of the challenges of getting an international agreement and action to tackle them*. Both climate and migration/refugees impact large numbers of countries; those being harder hit are usually not countries where the international media are based; there are different opinions on the subject, often not informed by facts; and there is the concept of “responsibility sharing”. The community addressing forced migration and refugees is passionate, determined, and morally and ethically right. But it’s struggling to get governments to put in place an effective legally binding instrument.

* Just to be clear I understand that the issues are somewhat conflated: climate change can drive migration, but there are very many causes of migration.

On climate change, scientists, the media and civil society, (comprising indigenous peoples, communities, citizens, personalities and NGOs) all played their part in keeping the issue front and centre. And yet progress really took off once roles, responsibilities and contributions were included not just from governments but from businesses, regions and cities. And it was the combination of voluntary pledges and legally binding agreements made up the package of measures that constituted the Paris Accord.

It’s a blueprint that could equally be applied to solving the refugee and migrants challenge, a conclusion reached in my daughter’s thesis. A summary blog can be found here.

Extreme lengths

In discussing this with my daughter, one thing struck me – the effort needed to change the circumstances that allowed the world to get from Copenhagen to Paris, and to get the agreement in place. It wasn’t just the meetings, the reports, the science. It was the constant attention. Everything became framed in terms of climate change. This went to extreme lengths when scientists even started blaming Arctic Ground Squirrels for contributing to climate change

Far be it from me to blame the Arctic Ground Squirrels, but the article does illustrate how climate change was the lens through which everything was framed. It still is, often to the detriment of other subjects.

No more than two or three

It made me wonder. If this is what is needed to get a global agreement to tackle a global problem, then how many other complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle? It’s hard to imagine governments and stakeholders building up the same momentum as was needed for climate change, to tackle more than two or three global challenges. 

“What about plastics?” I hear you say. It’s true that plastics became a global issue of public concern very very quickly. Like climate change it mobilised opinion across the world, not just in the west. And we are now seeing an impressive array of interventions from governments and companies across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Yet it hardly required much media or civil society pressure to get there.

I had some correspondence with Sam Vionnet recently about sustainability challenges. He remarked that only two things have ever changed our world – disasters (disruption) and social movements (linked to public opinion). I would add that both are needed together. Plastics fits this hypothesis well. The disaster of plastics is well illustrated by the multitude of photos and videos of plastics polluting the environment. And that’s before David Attenborough starts his voice over. We have yet to see a social movement, but public opinion is firmly against plastics. Aside from a few material scientists, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a positive view of the stuff. OK, there was that cucumber 

So plastics had the perfect storm. Climate didn’t (pardon the pun). Neither does forced migration and refugees, how ever much outrage and injustice there may be on the issue.

We’d better choose wisely

Which highlights the phenomenon that was the climate change agreement. Clearly the constant wall-to-wall attention, and just the threat of disaster was enough to get the world to move. Climate change had not just a global reach with different cultures engaged in different types of activism but it focussed upon systems change. So far the responses to plastics are rather superficial (banning straws, plastic bags etc), but there are signs of more systemic responses. Whether these will go far enough in addressing the root cause of our linear society remains to be seen. This would require consumers to start making choices on a big scale – something that has not even happened with climate change.

So what chance is there of creating a similar unstoppable momentum to tackle some of the other complex challenges? And how much bandwidth does the public have? How many issues can rise up in the public consciousness to rival climate change and lead to global coordinated action? 

I suspect only one or two more. So we probably need to choose them carefully.

I’d cast a vote for food systems. However, having learned a little about the topic I’d also suggest migration/refugees. Forced migration is perceived as quite a eurocentric problem. It has yet to break out and be recognised for the global issue it is. And the outrage is not there yet. Those working on it would do well to connect it to other issues to spread the understanding. Ironically (given my daughter’s thesis), at some point climate change will connect these issues all too well.