Is it time to change the narrative on climate change?

Kelly Clark By Kelly Clark

The climate crisis is continuing to accelerate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent study warned that global surface temperatures are rising more quickly than expected and Climate Action Tracker reports that almost every country is falling short of the commitments needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The upcoming COP26 could be successful in ratcheting up international ambitions, but clearly more needs to be done, and quickly, if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided.

At the latest Laudes Financial Dialogue, Rachel Kyte – Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a former UN climate adviser – suggested that the nature of the climate conversation needs to change if we’re going to achieve real results.

Focus on the cost of not going green

Reflecting on the Paris COP in 2015, Rachel recognised that the success of that event centred on the world’s agreement on the ‘What’: the aim is to halt emissions to curb global warming to 1.5 degrees. The intervening six years has therefore been about addressing the ‘How’: the market mechanisms (the details of which were not negotiated in Paris), the ratcheting up process and the need to become more and more ambitious. Critical to this question of ‘How’ is finance. She says, “How are we going to get countries to support this, to adapt and be resilient and how are we going to pay for loss and damage. How are we going to pay for the very real costs which are already being incurred?” 

Rachel concedes that there’s a limit on how much can be achieved at COP26, attributing this to the conversation still largely being centred on the cost of going green rather than really focusing on the cost of not going green. She says, “we can talk about the values that mean we will do better if we go green, and everyone will do better if we go green… but the minute we have to talk about who’s going to pay the cost you see that the agreements start to fray at the edges.” She believes that after the Glasgow event, there needs to be a resetting of the conversation to one that is not only about the cost of what will happen if we don’t do something different, but also “how do we bring everyone along as we do things differently.” This is about building social trust.

Carbon removal should be part of the discussion

An important element missing from the conversation is the actual removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Rachel suggests this discussion is not happening due to a concern that it would ease pressure on countries to improve their emission reduction ambitions. “There will be difficult politics around this and there will not be agreement, but we are so far off meeting the 1.5 degrees target that we are going to need a dual strategy going forward: continuing to reduce emissions, and implementation of carbon removal strategies.”  

While halting deforestation would be the best solution for carbon removal, Rachel acknowledges that this is not going to happen tomorrow. However, she believes we could be doing much more to minimise it. While research and development are focusing on innovating technologies to extract carbon from the air, it is already known that existing forests are the most efficient device available and that this issue goes to the heart of what we value in our economic model. Calling such decisions the ‘big imponderables’, she says “we’re at a moment of great inflection and at the heart of it will be the question of whether our natural resources are there to be exploited or do we need to protect these resources to maintain balance on the planet. I think the science is telling us that we have to re-establish a slightly different relationship with nature than we’ve had over the last decades.”

Inconsistency of thinking

The transition roadmap for developing countries is another area where the narrative has been unclear and arguably impeded progress. She believes a better articulation of how a move to renewable energy would provide people with basic services is required and that it will incorporate a social safety net to provide people with access to clean energy and water services, as well as a sustainably produced healthy diet. She says, “we still tend to look at climate in the vertical. Here is economic development and here are all the climate actions you need to take. We are now at the point where all economic development is taking place in the context of a climate-driven world and we have not yet fully integrated this into our thinking.” 

Despite all of this, there are many signs of hope. Progress is being made on green hydrogen, green steel and green shipping. The finance sector is also coming to terms with the risk implied by carbon emissions not being reduced quickly enough. That said, Rachel points out that there are still great inconsistencies in our thinking around climate change, especially from an economic and financial perspective. She highlights that we are still profligate in the way we finance fossil fuel, how we apply subsidies in agriculture and in our land use. She says, “we haven’t stopped doing stupid things, even while we try to transition into the smart things we need more of. And this is a reckoning that I think is going to come post COP26.” 

Reciprocal vulnerability

Rachel suggests that a different approach to leadership is needed if we are to truly challenge climate change. Our zero-sum political world – where leaders can’t afford to make a mistake or admit that they don’t have every piece of the climate change puzzle in place yet, and political parties refuse to find a fair consensus – just engenders uncertainty and no decisions are made, regulations are not passed and the population is confused. She says, “so what do people do? They roll over and pull the covers over their heads or they feel that the price on green is unaffordable to them. Which is completely counter to the evidence, we know that there is a green pot at the end of the rainbow, but we’ve got to get there and we’ve got to get there with everybody.”

Rather than the ‘strong man approach’, Rachel believes leaders that display reciprocal vulnerability –where they are open to dialogue and open to making changes and will admit to weakness – would have more success in bringing people together on the issues surrounding climate change and would build social trust more effectively.  She says, “now is the time for leaders to stand up, with reciprocal vulnerability, because no matter what the geopolitics say we do have to find a way to move forward and we have to find a way to move forward together.”  

This notion of reciprocal vulnerability chimes with Laudes Foundation’s belief that to elicit real and just change we need to call forth 21st century solutions to steer policy, business and communities onto the right net zero pathway. Adjusting how we talk about climate change could be the first vital step in that direction. 

About the author

By Kelly Clark

Kelly is the Director of Finance Capital Market Transformation at Laudes Foundation. The love she holds for her twins and concern for future generations motivates her to strive for change in the global economy and the financial system that supports it. She brings a strategic, intersectional view to tackling inequality and the climate crisis, and a deep desire to build bridges and unify perspectives.