4 Steps to Beat Climate Change Complacency

“Under the Business-as-Usual Scenario, emissions of greenhouse gases will result in a global temperature increase of 0.3° per decade — greater than ever seen in the past 10,000 years. This will likely result in a global-mean temperature of about 1ºC above the present value by 2025 and 3° at the end of the century. (…) Stabilizing [global temperatures] would require immediate reductions in emissions of over 60% compared with current levels.”

If you think this is the latest warning report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about the consequences of acting too late on anthropogenic greenhouse gases you would be mistaken. It was taken from the first IPCC report, back in 1992 — almost 30 years ago.

It seems like nothing has changed since the working group drafted those lines of warning: apparently we are still following the 1°C course. It is uncanny how predictions made then have proven to be entirely accurate 28 years later. Except, of course, the predictions for the end of the century: now we are looking at a 5° to 8°C increase. Such an increase would be catastrophic for our way of life.

In Paris, the international community has vowed to limit global temperature increases to the 1.5° C threshold, in other words, to slash emissions by 35 gigatons (GT) annually this decade. This would be six times larger than the previous record reduction of 0,4 GT in 2009 — caused by the global financial crisis — and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II. Of course, once the crises were over the rebound in emissions was always larger than the decline.

While it is theoretically possible to achieve such fundamental changes in our economic systems, we have a significant challenge in our hands: transforming the world economy in 10 years.

So far, the change to a greener economy has been focused on innovative projects and initiatives to build up skills. In my earliest projects, as a junior project manager, we had the task to support the design and implementation of “Local Agenda 21″ projects. Heavily based on community dialogue, for 3 months I travelled through 14 municipalities to work out a way to reduce local carbon emissions. Unfortunately, in too many situations change did not take place or improvements were disappointing, with wasted resources and frustrated participants. Scepticism in further similar initiatives became pervasive. I believe most green project managers today face similar struggles of their own.

In truth, while in the news climate change is readily admitted as a problem, in everyday private conversations come the “buts”: “it is not such a big problem”, “the scientists are being alarmist”, “it’s a matter for the tree-huggers”, “technology will solve it”. Visit any meeting outside the green or environmental bubble and you begin to wonder if climate change even exists.

In such a complacency-driven environment, change initiatives like the one I was involved in face an uphill battle on arrival.

All in all, there is a clear gap between talk and action.

According to a 2018 European Social Survey of 44,387 respondents in 23 European countries, a majority of European citizens agree that climate change is happening and is a problem. However, only a minority are actually very or extremely worried about its consequences (see image below).

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Concern about climate change. Source: Author, based on data from the European Social Survey (2018).

Across those 23 countries, only Portugal (52%), Spain (50%), and Germany (43%) report at least half of the respondents being very or extremely worried about climate change. The generally low level of concern is startling, given that two-thirds think the impact of climate change will be bad for people across the world.

The outlook within the business community is not much better. Even though they are set to play a critical role in the EU Green Deal, their perception worryingly mirrors the general public’s opinion on the subject. According to the 2019 United Nations Global Compact — Accenture Strategy CEO Study on Sustainability, 99% of large company CEOs agree that “sustainability issues are important to the future success of their businesses” and that they are already feeling the pressure to build more sustainable enterprises from key stakeholders, in particular, Millennials and Gen Z. However, they are not doing enough on climate change: only 44% see a net-zero future for their company in the next decade. Just 41% are decarbonizing their supply chains. Other surveys present similar results (for example here, here, or here).

What’s behind this apparent contradiction? Sterman and Sweeney may provide some clues. In their research, they have found that people underestimate the impacts of severe climate change. They justify this fact by the complexities of the problem:

“Adoption and diffusion are facilitated when innovations and new policies are simple, easy to test, have clear advantage over alternatives, and where costs and benefits are quickly observed. Climate change ranks poorly on all the dimensions: its complex, policies are difficult to test, and the benefits of emissions reductions are delayed and ambiguous.

“And if people cannot readily assess costs and benefits for themselves, imitation of elite reference groups, word-of-mouth, media and marketing play stronger roles in opinion and behaviour change”.

Andrew Winston suggests the findings also highlight a lingering notion on climate change among business leaders — the implicit assumption that it’s a distraction from “real” business rather than a path to profit and building thriving businesses, as Nicholas Stern or Michael Porter have argued.

This situation will not change until governments clearly signal deep change. As implied by Gabrielle Gine, head of environmental sustainability at BT, business leaders are waiting to see and believe a net-zero target by 2050 will actually happen to change modus operandi and set out new strategies to reduce carbon-intensive operations.

There is indeed little point in setting ambitious targets and allocating considerable amounts of public funding for combatting climate change if citizens still feel climate change is not a pressing matter — that will actually influence their livelihood in the present and near future.

To some degree resistance to change is inevitable. However, the considerable amount of waste, delayed action, and missed opportunities we are witnessing since 1992 perhaps could have been avoidable.

We actually know this for sure because change has been a central concern for businesses since the 1980s, when globalization started to present problems to conventional business management practices. Since then, many companies, of every type and size, have been testing and following modest or ambitious change processes.

Indeed, one gets a sense of déjà vu every time one reads Leading Change by John P. Kotter — the landmark book by the widely regarded and foremost speaker on the topic of Change. Unsurprisingly, the same sort of problems that have been afflicting corporate change in the last decades seems to afflict climate change mitigation policies.

According to Kotter, for the last three decades, companies have been forced to undertake restrategizing and cultural renewal projects to survive. Some have succeeded and reduced costs, improved the quality of products and services, located new opportunities for growth, and increased productivity.

In the 21st century, change is part of a modern company’s DNA.

However, even in such a studied domain, missteps are rife: even though private or public organisations can be significantly changed and improved under a reasonable budget, most of the time that doesn’t happen because they incur a number of errors. And you guessed it, the no.1 mistake is complacency.

So, what do Kotter and other change management experts tell us about beating complacency? That first and foremost, we should create a sense of urgency.

Step 1. Create a sense of urgency

Making people understand the urgency of a problem is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. Without it, transformations go nowhere because people just won’t take that extra step. Sometimes we underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones:

Will we lower our thermostat if we are not convinced of the veracity and urgency of reducing carbon emissions?

People often find justifications to withhold cooperation from a process that they believe is unreasonable or unwarranted. This is well-understood. Just look at Tyler and Huo (2002): back in 2002, they showed that citizens were likely to comply only when actions taken upon them were perceived to be legitimate.

Is there any doubt that, as soon as complications arise, the European Commission won’t have a difficult time to continue to push for green reforms? No matter how much money poured into the current system, if many don’t feel a sense of urgency, the momentum for change will probably die far short of the finish line.

Any change should start by taking an honest look at the current and near future situation and, as importantly communicate it in simple terms. Being able to communicate that information broadly means to present hard evidence.

Telling the truth is essential for building trust and especially to have people commit to making the necessary sacrifices.

Furthermore, a number of authors argue that the soft approach we have been following has been unsuccessful so far and a more dramatic albeit evidence-based approach could finally make people realise what is at stake. In the book “Uninhabitable Earth — a story of our future” its author, David Wallace-Wells delivers a picture of a bleak Earth in 2100: ice sheets collapsed, global GDP plummeting 13%, equatorial cities too hot to be liveable, two-thirds of the world’s cities underwater, and devastating droughts. This may seem like a science-fiction dystopia, but he is merely describing the higher end of the prediction interval for 2100: at 8°C. It is within the realm of pondered possibilities.

A certain level of alarmism has certainly been viewed more favourably in the last years as time to change is getting shorter and we feel enough is not being done. In their major recent report, for example, the IPCC — known for moderation — urged ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,’ to avoid total catastrophe by 2030.

We can argue if the message needs to be more dramatic, but we do need a change of direction. Firstly, we need to help citizens internalize the problem. This shouldn’t be a task of scientists — they need to be focused on delivering quality data and assessments. But we do need good intermediaries — between the scientific community and the public — someone who knows how to convey complex issues in a simple way. (science) Journalists seem particularly apt for this task.

Secondly, we should use the full toolbox to create a justifiable sense of urgency — this means crafting a smart marketing campaign, at least at the level of other commercial campaigns that have successfully entered our consciousness. Its purpose must be to convey that business-as-usual is more dangerous than minimizing our carbon footprint. So why not hire top-notch marketing consultants to come up with convincing, strong, and evidence-based messages?

But other ideas may offer new ways to help raise the urgency level in people’s minds. The following table presents some ideas fit for climate change.

Ways to raise the urgency level
Ways to raise the urgency level. Source: adapted from Kotter (2012). Leading Change pp.46.


Step 2. Create a powerful coalition

Change experts tell us that only powerful forces can sustain deep change processes and deal with the considerable forces of inertia. A strong guiding coalition is needed — one with the right composition. In a company building such a team is an essential part of the early stages of any effort to restructure, reengineer, or retool a set of strategies. Kotter tells us that four key characteristics seem to be essential to effective guiding coalitions:

    • Power
    • Expertise
    • Credibility
    • Leadership

In a company, building such a coalition is simply a matter of putting together a team that can direct the change effort. In a system-wide change process, this is more difficult to put together. But the need is still there.

A number of coalitions actually already exist to fight climate change. The UN is currently building a global coalition for carbon neutrality. A result of the One Planet Summit, the goal of the coalition is to voluntarily develop long-term, low-emissions, climate-resilient development strategies, in line with the agreed long-term temperature increase limit. There is also the Covenant of Mayors — a network of city council leaders; the Climate Network — a network of NGOs in more than 130 countries; or the Regions for Sustainable Development — a world network of regional governments.

All these networks share the fact that they are mostly modest (budget) coalitions of voluntary organisations. They showcase solutions in relevant sectors and monitor results to demonstrate feasibility, provide leadership, advocate and encourage other countries, regions, or cities to follow, in particular as positive results are communicated.

These coalitions seem to feature 3 out of the 4 conditions argued by Kotter for successful guiding coalitions: the “Power” condition seems to be lacking. This condition is however important as key recommendations may fall to deaf ears or face a wall of passive resistance. Some hard-working coalitions may make a few contributions, but they come only slowly and incrementally. We don’t have time for that.

The truth is that the necessary coalition should provide strong leadership — especially the kind that stems from executive power and finance control. This was actually highlighted by the International Energy Agency in its last Outlook Report:

The world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions. This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change.

Dr Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director, in IEA Outlook Report 2019

Aware of the need to overcome obstacles and control budget allocation President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included the creation of a number of governmental agencies. The “alphabet agencies” were created by the US Federal government, including the Works Progress Administration, Federal Housing Administration, and the Rural Electrification Administration. Some of these agencies still exist today such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Although these sorts of agencies are today mostly derided for their bureaucratic weight, we need nonetheless innovative action-driven coalitions, that hold similar credibility and power to defeat inertia or passive resistance. In other words, establishing an ambitious Green Deal governing structure is, therefore, a critical move for the European Commission to fight off complacency.


Step 3. Develop a vision of a green future

Vision refers to a picture of an ideal future, with enough detail that you can actually see the route to get there and what kind of change it will represent in your life. A good vision serves important purposes:

    • Clarifies the general direction for change.
    • Motivates people on what kind of action is necessary to get there.
    • Helps coordinate the actions of different people.

Having a clear image of the desired future is important to set expectations straight: most of the time people have different notions on what it means to get to the desired state. Clearly stating what is wanted and the way to get there saves a lot of time dedicated to debating on what kind of action is necessary. Resources can thus be mobilised correctly towards the transformation process.

In the case of the green transition, a good vision must acknowledge that sacrifices or deep changes will be happening, but also highlight that personal satisfaction (in different perspectives) will be far superior to the status quo. Given the time-frame we are given to change entire systems to communicate otherwise would be disingenuous.

As an example, the World Economic Forum developed the following vision in the frame of its Annual Meeting of Global Future Councils:

“By 2030, your CO2 emissions will be greatly reduced. Meat on your dinner table will be a rare sight. Water and the air you breathe will be cleaner and nature will be in recovery. The money in your wallet will be spent on being with family and friends, not on buying goods. Saving the climate involves huge change, but it could make us much happier at the same time.

“You walk out of your front door in the morning into a green and liveable city, where concrete has dwindled and green facades and parks are spreading. If you choose to call a car, an algorithm will calculate the smartest route for the vehicle and pick up a few other people on the way.

“Best of all, because citizens have stopped buying so much stuff, they have more money to spend on other things. This new disposable income is spent on services: cleaning, gardening, help with laundry, healthy and easy meals to cook, entertainment, experiences and fabulous new restaurants. All of these things give the average modern person more options and more free time to spend with their friends and families, working out, learning new skills, playing sports or making art — you name it and there’s more time to do it.”

It is undeniable that this kind of statement presents us with a clearer picture of the future, including some of the sacrifices we will have to endure and potential rewards to be expected from them. This could well be a starting point to building a vision most of us can agree on, work towards, and accept some sacrifices in the meantime.


Step 4. Communicate better

Most green reform communications consist of a comprehensive document where the approach is presented, including the vision, strategy, and an action plan, to realise an imaginary future. While this kind of document is useful as a masterplan for subsidiary policy-making and project charter draft, its usefulness as a communication tool for the general public is arguably low.

The reality is that the real potential of a vision is only unleashed when those involved have a sufficient understanding of its goal and direction. This shared understanding is what motivates and coordinates our actions. In other words, we have to get the message across to a significant number of individuals.

Strangely enough, we often tend to under-communicate life-defining policy or simply inadvertently send inconsistent messages across different projects and platforms. Marketing specialists understand the importance of making a message stick in the minds of the target audience. How many of us have a jingle, a song, or a catchphrase constantly on our minds after a well-thought-of marketing campaign?

Clearly, this is not the domain of lawmakers, economists, environmental experts, or project managers, but of marketing specialists. Best practice suggests communication seems to work best when it is direct and simple that all sorts of people are able to understand it. We need focused, jargon-free information to be disseminated and targeted to different, heterogeneous groups of people.

The Center for Creative Leadership has crafted 9 useful tips to definitely get the message across, irrespective of the domain:

9 tips to communicate a Vision
Tips to communicate a vision. Source: Adapted from Center for Creative Leadership.

Final note: Leadership

What comes through with crystal clarity from Kotter’s writings is that there are no simple solutions to start change. The Green Transition definitely requires bold actions, that alter the current perception and predicaments of climate complacency. Every project manager is aware that modest initiatives, such as the small-town projects I was engaging in early on in my career, will go nowhere by themselves in the face of the overpowering forces of inertia.

We need strong leadership.

A leader will take the necessary action as they have confidence the forces unleashed can be directed to achieve the important ends. In this case, as Mariana Mazzucatto suggests, leadership means public actors moving out of their comfort zones, think outside of the “market failure” box, and be prepared to take risks of creating new markets and inspiring society to resolve the long-term issue of climate change. A leader must also reassure the population of the righteousness of the chosen path and soften the inevitable conflict and anxiety that deep change always brings.

Leaders according to Kotter
Leaders according to Kotter. Source: John P. Kotter (1994). Leading Change. Pp. 29

The tasks that lay ahead are understandably difficult. But, by following a step-by-step process, a considerable number of companies have been able to change considerably and come out on top. Now the stakes are just higher.

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