Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A ‘Sweet Spot’ in tackling climate change?

Today (Monday April 28, 2014) Jeremy Oppenheim was in Toronto. Oppenheim is the director of the  Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (chaired by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, co-chairs include Lord Nicholas Stern and the OECD Secretary-General). He was hosted by Corporate Knights’ Toby Heaps for a 'high level' lunch which included some of the top brass of Toronto’s investment, real estate, insurance and academic communities. And civil society, of course, David Miller (ex-Major of Toronto and now Head of WWF Canada) was there, too.

It was, first off, a real game changing experience to see a room of 30ish ‘climate activists’ in pinstripes (or female equivalent) convening over antipasto e bistecca to discuss the plight of the planet. Oppenheim's remarks were thought provoking as they reflected the current gist among those leaders that care seriously about climate change.

Oppenheim started by highlighting that the public debate has somewhat stalled as most of conversations on climate change evoke pretty unsexy, depressing and un-cool truths. Going on and on about threats linked to climate change just makes you a boring party pooper.

At least in person – he was all but. Eloquently, engaging and thoughtfully he relayed his core points. What struck me most is that amongst the experts, the entire debate about ‘avoiding’ or ‘fighting’ climate change is yesterday’s news. Oppenheim stated clearly that – in my words - we just have to suck it up that temperatures are about to rise by two degrees. The damage is done. Today’s debate is really about how to avoid global warming to reach three or even four degrees. A sobering – and somewhat chilling assessment.

Oppenheim – no less a McKinsey director on leave from their London offices – then pointed to the currently explored strategy - which hopefully can become a game changer: highlight the 'positive' side of climate change (in my words). Or to put it this way: adapting to climate change can already make economic sense now! He ran through a couple of examples from many places around the globe. Here is just one: Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region has been identified as a great worry. What we see now though is that land owners in the Amazon are increasingly sympathetic to restrictions on turning rain forest into farm land: after all, the unlimited possibility of creating new farmland through cutting the forest decreases the value of their property. According to Oppenheim, those economic drivers are a huge force in favor of climate friendly policies.

It is interesting to see that a group of top business people is having this discussion. In the Canadian context, many of these will be laughed out of their Golf Clubs or seven star resorts in the Caribbean if they ever repeated to their buddies what they heard today. Canada, Oppenheim intimated with the maximum level of British politeness, is a real mess with regard to climate change action. So Oppenheim’s point was really that we have to change the story, change the way we communicate about it. Present it as a story of opportunity, rather than a story of threat. While Lord Stern’s report years ago was telling us ‘Pay a little now and you avoid being taken to the cleaners by climate change tomorrow!’ Oppenheim’s new message is: ‘You can actually make money on adapting to climate change NOW!’

I left the event with a somewhat ambiguous feeling. I was uplifted to see key players in business – from where most of the sources of carbon emissions are ultimately governed – acutely aware of the problem. I also liked the pragmatic gist of Oppenheim’s argument: We can use the current incentive structure in one of the most powerful engines of capitalism to ‘move the needle’ (I have to watch my language…) on pressing global issues. And - fair enough - there is some leeway.

At the same time, the by now worn out quote from Albert Einstein kept creeping up on me on my way home: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A focus on short term economic gains for individual actors or organizations got us into this mess of climate change in the first place. And – we have to add – has prevented any large-scale meaningful response to date. So finding that ‘sweet spot’ (a quote from Jeremy Oppenheim’s McKinsey Website) where business interest and environmental needs converge may take us some way. But there can be little doubt that this is not going to really change the bigger picture.
Photo by Tyler Hamilton/Corporate Knights.

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