You’re a business leader. You studied hard in business school, earned your MBA and as a result, are fully equipped to succeed. Well, almost.
If you are reading this blog, chances are you want to work from within a company to improve its performance while greening its business practices. Perhaps you’ve taken some courses on climate change and already understand the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Great! We need more people like you! But if you really want to make meaningful change, there are a five things you should understand that, in my opinion, are not taught nearly enough at institutions of higher education, whether in business, public health, engineering, or ecology. So before you set out to change the world, consider this:
1. We cannot reverse or stop climate change.
The decades-long focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is still critical if we hope to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But scientists understand that even if we eliminate fossil fuels entirely from our economy tomorrow, the Earth will continue to warm for decades to come. That means even with successful mitigation there will continue to be changes to our climate that we must prepare for. To succeed in the 21st century, companies must acknowledge and adapt to this reality. Businesses should do this in concert with a science-based approach to relentlessly reduce their carbon footprint while ensuring that they do not further undermine the natural resource base on which the global economy depends.
2. Climate change is constant.
Many believe that adapting to climate change is preparing for a single but different climate, or the “new normal.” In fact there will be no normal climate, but rather one that is in a constant state of flux. And because climate change will alter the planet in ways we cannot yet foresee, long-term visioning and planning becomes particularly complicated. The new long-term strategy should be a series of flexible, short- to medium-term plans that are designed in the context of a dynamic climate. They should be quickly modifiable as we learn more about the changing climate and the social, political, economic and ecological responses to that change.
3. It’s more than just bad weather.
When you think of climate change, you probably think about changes in weather patterns and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, melting polar ice caps and rising sea level. In fact, climate change drives much more than the weather and geophysical characteristics of the Earth. It is also changing where we can and choose to live, consumer demand for goods and services (how long will people keep buying snowmobiles?), where and how we grow our food, how we spend our leisure time, government spending priorities, business regulation and the need for social services. These trends are but a few examples of “climate-driven” change and they have important implications for the private sector, creating both setbacks and opportunities. A company ignores these overarching trends at its own peril.
4. A green business is no less vulnerable to climate change.
For the past quarter century, responsible companies have strived to achieve “sustainability,” most simply maintaining profitability while minimizing impacts to the environment. But so far almost all sustainable activities (even renewable energy strategies) have been designed to work in the context of an assumed stationary climate. Take shade-grown coffee. A great example of sustainable agriculture, but it means nothing if that coffee and the trees that shade it cannot survive hotter, drier climates. Accepting that climate change is real requires that we rethink the concept of sustainability while embracing “resilience thinking.” To be sure, the private sector must continue to minimize its environmental impact. But doing this without simultaneously creating and supporting business models, communities, and economies that are able to maintain functionality in the face of unanticipated shocks – severe weather, damage to infrastructure, crop failures, conflict, mass migration, new disease outbreaks and so on – is only delaying their inevitable collapse.
5. Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction.
Imagine someone who refuses to plan for their retirement or purchase health insurance until a doctor tells them how long they’ll live. Ridiculous, right? Often we want perfect information and certainty before making decisions and taking action. We know climate change is a certainty, but we know little about how it will affect the social, political and economic dynamics that impact your business. All the more reason to pay extra attention to it. Businesses that intend to thrive in the foreseeable future must proactively embrace this uncertainty, just like we plan for unexpected illnesses or emergencies in our personal lives. Businesses have long used scenario planning to prepare for situations of high uncertainty. Once a business starts to focus on what could happen (rather than what will happen), it can take immediate action to prepare for multiple plausible futures.
Your MBA gave you the foundation to be successful in the business world. But success is entirely dependent on planning for and accommodating a changing climate. Expect the unexpected, or risk falling behind.
About the Author
Shaun Martin is WWF’s senior director for climate change adaptation and conservation leadership. He has more than 20 years experience working in the fields of capacity building, training, and leadership development. In his climate change adaptation role he applies this experience to help conservation and development programs become “climate smart,” ensuring they are prepared to address the inevitable consequences of climate change and their effects on biodiversity, ecosystems, and communities.