Turbocharging the Ambition Loop
The Youth Climate Strike two weeks ago — in NYC and worldwide — followed by the UN Youth Climate Summit were remarkable. Young people were articulate and passionate in sounding a call to action, based on a clear understanding of the science of climate change, the risks to our future, and the dangers of continued inaction (or far too slow action). Their sense of urgency was palpable, and the moral clarity of their message was refreshing.
The following week, I attended a number of sessions organized as part of Climate Week, an annual event put on by The Climate Group. The contrast between the clear message conveyed by the youth and the message during Climate Week was stark. On the one hand, there were a number of speakers — people like John Kerry and Jay Inslee — who talked about urgency and the moral reasons to act quickly. On the other hand, most speakers conveyed a sense of hope and optimism that is belied by the reality of our current emissions trajectory.
Yes, there were many new commitments by companies. Yes, there were new technologies heralded that could help solve the climate crisis. And yet, there was little public discussion of why, in the face of all this progress, we are not even close to being on track to meeting the targets laid out in the IPCC’s 1.5°C report, which says that to have a decent chance of holding warming below 1.5°C, we need to cut emissions by 2030 to no more than 45% below 2010 emissions, and we need to be at net-zero emissions by 2050. To make the problem more daunting: if the world as a whole is going to cut emissions approximately in half by 2030, the developed world will have to move faster than that, and some sectors will have to move faster while we develop the solutions for the “harder to decarbonize” sectors.
I do not see how we come close to hitting that 2030 target without meaningful policies — policies that drive rapid decarbonization across the entire economy in the next decade. We need innovation, we need finance, and we need voluntary action by individual companies and individual people. But those alone are not enough. We need market rules that guide the entire economy onto the decarbonization pathway laid out by the IPCC.
The dominant theory of change embraced by most NGOs that work with companies on climate action is the “ambition loop” — the idea that as businesses act on climate, that spurs governments to enact more ambitious climate policy — and as governments enact policies, that spurs more businesses to act. This sounds good in theory, and there are in fact numerous examples around the world where ambition loops appear to be driving progress. But given our overall emissions trajectory, they’re not driving progress fast enough. It’s time to turbocharge the ambition loop.
The elephant in the room, which was not really discussed publicly (at least as far as I heard), is the intense influence efforts by the fossil fuel industry to disrupt the ambition loop. It’s hard for policy makers to enact meaningful policies when they hear over and over from major industries that doing so will eliminate jobs and hurt the economy (and that those industries will use their money and influence in elections, either for the policy makers or against them, depending on the policies enacted) — and at the same time they don’t hear much from other industries that such policies are needed, and even wanted, by major players in the economy.
Some speakers during Climate Week talked about the need for policy, and the need for more companies to advocate for strong climate policies. Most, however, focused on the hopeful message that all the new commitments, targets, initiatives, etc. represent progress, and put us on the path to solving the climate crisis. (One speaker even put up a chart highlighting the “progress” in the number of commitments and initiatives over the last 5 years. But all those commitments and initiatives haven’t translated to rapid emissions reduction.)
To paraphrase Greta Thunberg, this strikes me as “false hope.” The ambition loop is working, but far too slowly. And the focus on individual action — including by leaders such as Marc Benioff and Richard Branson — serves to distract from the need to change the rules of the market so that the entire economy shifts.
This gets to the gist of my post before climate week: it’s time for companies to step up from action to advocacy. Not just to say how much they love the Paris agreement, but to get engaged at every level of government, in every region in which they operate, and support the policies needed to get those regions on a path to rapid decarbonization. This is how we’ll turbocharge the ambition loop.
All of us — and especially the NGOs that work with companies — need to set a clear expectation for leadership by companies: companies need to use their influence everywhere they operate to support policies aligned with science, and aligned with a just transition. To borrow a phrase from the anti-bullying world: companies need to shift from being bystanders to being upstanders. Decarbonizing your operations? Great. Selling products that others can use to make their lives and companies more sustainable? Even better. Silent on policies that scale climate solutions rapidly? Not okay.
I’ll close with a couple of relevant quotes.
The first is from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Silence in the policy debate today is not neutrality, it’s complicity with preserving the status quo.
The second is from President John Kennedy: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” Let’s find the courage to accept the short-term risks of speaking up, and be upstanders in helping avoid the catastrophes lying ahead if we don’t act.