A year of extreme weather, rising sea levels and Amazon forest fires has led to a big shift in the climate debate. Will this inspire a collective change in behavior as the world looks for sustainable leadership in tackling climate change?
- A meaningful shift in the debate on sustainability issues during 2019 has raised hopes of behavior change towards tackling the climate emergency in 2020.
- Wild weather, the reach of social media, and the ability of the Internet of Things to generate data has created a fertile environment for climate messaging to flourish.
- There is still the opportunity to make the changes necessary to protect our planet, given the world’s available finances, resources and technology.
There has been a noticeable increase in media coverage and everyday conversation devoted to sustainability-related issues, with more than half of all Americans saying they now hear about global warming in the media every month (up 13 percentage points from the previous year).
In addition, 80 percent of the public in the UK say they are ‘very or fairly concerned’ about climate change, a significant increase of six percentage points on just a year ago.
A large part of this shift in awareness comes through the most obvious manifestation of global warming — the increasingly extreme weather the world is witnessing:
- Arctic sea ice fell to the lowest level on record this year.
- Wildfires rage with alarming regularity across the Americas, with São Paulo recently plunged into smokey darkness from Amazon rainforest fires.
- Warmer oceans are leading to sea level rises, which are impacting coastal areas.
- Heat waves now kill more U.S. citizens than any other weather event, and France reached 45.9C in a summer that scorched all of Europe.
It’s hard to ignore the simple fact 18 of the last 19 years have been the hottest on record.
Extreme weather events, alongside the obvious physical consequences of single-use plastic consumption on our beaches and oceans, have made the climate change discussions more immediate and visceral.
Combine these physical warnings with the rapid global communications reach of social media, and the ability of the Internet of Things to generate data from which we can measure impact, and it has created a fertile environment for climate messaging to flourish.
The climate change debate
With it, the tone of the increased media coverage has shifted from “this is a long-term issue that continues to polarize debate” to “we’re in the last chance saloon”.
The perceived blockers for making headway in the climate battle appear to broadly fall into three camps: the huge cost involved in delivering meaningful change, the need for technological innovation to optimize how we live, and the lack of political and personal consensus across the world on exactly what needs to be done.
Put simply, we’re talking money, means and mindset.
But in a world that spends US$1.8 trillion annually on military spending, loses $1.45 trillion to illicit financial flows and wastes $160 billion worth of food in the U.S. alone, money is readily available if there is a will to re-direct it towards sustainable initiatives. After all, research predicts global assets under management will surpass $100 trillion by 2020.
From a technology perspective, the cost of generating electricity from alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydro, continues to decline.
Some costs are now at, or below, the marginal cost of conventional generation. Given this, it’s no surprise the renewables share of UK electricity generation increased to 33 percent in 2018, a new record high. It’s one example of many.
Alongside this there are plenty of renewable energy innovations being developed, such as scientists at Caltech and Northwestern University using rust to generate electricity, or researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia finding a way to purify water through solar power.
Sustainability or short-term gains?
The bottom line is we already have the capacity to hugely decarbonize our world; money and means are not the primary issues.
The true blocker remains the collective will to prioritize sustainability over short-term gains, and to actively redefine what prosperity and value mean as individuals, businesses and states.
Large corporations must play a big role in combating the climate crisis. Their sheer size, influence and footprint dictates it.
Our Refinitiv data covers 7,000 businesses across 400 different measures from carbon emissions to board diversity to water usage. Data is just the beginning when it comes to shifting behavior; it provides transparency and ultimately holds businesses to account.
You need data to inform decisions, to focus action and to mobilize.
This increased disclosure of data is coinciding with the world’s largest companies re-examining their priorities. In the U.S., the Business Roundtable recently changed its statement on the purpose of a corporation.
Previously it was based solely on whether it yields higher profits for shareholders, but now considers “all stakeholders” — employees, customers and society in general. With more businesses now likely to show robust, sustainable leadership it’s a step in the right direction.
All businesses are, of course, made up of individuals and the truth is that wholesale changes are needed to the Western consumption-based lifestyle model if we are going to achieve carbon emission reductions. Less travel, fewer clothes, less red meat consumption, less plastic, shared ownership of seldom-used assets. You get the idea.
The U.S., as an example, comprises less than five percent of the world’s population but consumes nearly a quarter of its resources.
This simply cannot be replicated in developing countries, where 60 percent of the world’s population live in Asia alone.
At Refinitiv, we have substantial employee presence in the likes of Bangalore and Manila, with some of our most engaged volunteer sustainability teams across the whole business found in Asia.
They are alive to the challenges of their regions, and the world, and are responding with an incredible breadth of positive social and environmental initiatives on top of their day jobs.
Tackling climate change
A groundswell of individual activity remains paramount — actions that lead by example, encourage others to do the same, aggregate up to provide meaningful collective impact, and send strong social and political signals.
But doing this without top-down leadership is like sweeping leaves on a windy day. We need to get to the root cause to make systemic change. And this requires the state.
State action can take many forms, be it mandating corporate environmental disclosures, implementing wider-scale carbon taxes and prioritizing sustainable investment, to name but a few.
Economic development has to be intertwined with social progress and environmental protection, and, crucially, must be aligned collectively across the world.
So, in true consulting fashion, what’s the ‘so what’ of all of this?
The takeaway is that tackling climate change can be done.
We still have the window of opportunity to make the changes necessary to protect our planet. We have the available finances and resources. We have the technology. We have the medium-term vision of a sustainable world fueled by a green, low-carbon, resource-efficient economy.
The fundamental question remains, do we have the collective will to make the changes needed to get there?
If 2019 has seen a meaningful shift in the debate on the climate emergency, perhaps 2020 will be year we see a change in behavior towards tackling climate change.