The sustainability debate is about more than just climate change and what the US is going to do about it

Al Gore is one of the greatest sustainability leaders of our time. If anyone can issue a compelling diagnosis of the challenges we face, it’s Al Gore. But his recent call to action over what he terms the “climate of denial” – the failure of American politicians and the media to successfully act on climate change – offers misguided solutions.

Gore gets at the heart of the debate over how we can turn the public tide on climate change. Who will deliver the bold, inspirational leadership we need? What will shift awareness into certainty on the need for action?

Yet his proposed answers ask us to pin our hopes on reforming this broken political system. In doing so he discounts much of the incredible progress that is already being made outside of traditional politics.

Gore’s powerful and timely summary of why the political system is broken offers us a critical opportunity. If his judgment is correct, the scale of change required to reignite progress on sustainability, including issues like climate change, is both radical and unprecedented.

Here are four new ways of looking at the sustainability crisis, and some examples of how these perspectives are already helping to drive solutions.

Leadership is not limited to US presidents

The world is increasingly complex and interconnected. As technologies continue to spread across the globe, from basic mobile phones to new social media channels, power is shifting in unpredictable ways. Recently we’ve seen the most popular (and one of the most politically influential) British newspaper rocked by an ethics scandal and shut down forever – driven by the combined power of a new network of voices outside the political sphere.

Layer climate change on top of this rapidly shifting landscape of power, and it would be damaging to suggest that leadership lies exclusively in the hands of the president of the United States.

But this is exactly what Gore does when he says that America is “the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future ... and the president is the only person who can rally the United States.”

In reality the definition of what makes a great leader is changing, just as the traditional barriers to leadership are breaking down. Today leadership potential sits in the hands of anyone who can access, analyse and strategically use information.

Just ask any of the beneficiaries of Nike’s GreenXchange initiative, which open sources life cycle design methods to make better products available across the retail industry.

Rethinking leadership in this way makes it hard to accept Gore’s belief that “without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change”.

Climate change is a symptom

More evidence is surfacing daily to show the true depths of the systematic issues we’re facing. The latest results of the Carbon Tracker, revealing that high-carbon investment could be the next sub-prime crisis, are but one example. As we begin to understand more about the central role natural resources play in supporting our economies and societies, nothing short of a transformation will be in order.

Increasingly the best way to look at climate change is as a symptom of this wider crisis, rather than an isolated issue. It’s this very treatment of climate change as a singular topic that has driven the polarised media landscape Gore calls attention to.

This singular way of thinking also leads Gore to put energy at the centre of the climate debate. Cutting emissions and shifting to renewables is a great place to start, but it’s hardly enough to create a truly sustainable world.

Plenty of thought leaders in the world of sustainability are guilty of this “carbon fundamentalism”. Bill Gates has been especially dogged in his promotion of nuclear energy, even to the extreme of saying that energy efficiency doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of talking point the media will relish as today’s story, distracting us from tomorrow’s solutions.

Reducing your impact is yesterday’s task

Back in the 1970s when policies to protect us from pollution first emerged, the idea of minimising negative impacts on the environment was pretty innovative.

Not anymore. Starting now, everyone is an activist – especially the small handful of forward-thinking businesses that are already helping to shift sustainability from responsibility to opportunity. These companies understand that the ultimate goal for any organisation that wants to truly future-proof its business today isn’t to reduce negative impact or “footprint”. 

That’s still important, but the real innovators are focused on how their business can deliver a net positive impact on sustainable development.

wants to use its products to help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being. Nokia envisions using its core technologies to help create a world where everyone is connected and contributing to sustainable development.

Ironically Gore names Wal-Mart as an example of a “sustainability leader” we should be using our consumer dollars to support. He cites the company’s aggressive reduction of its carbon footprint. By choosing to buy from companies like Wal-Mart, Gore believes, we can send a strong signal to the business community about kind of change we demand.

This is an unfortunate example. Leaving aside the reality that Wal-Mart controls about 14% of the total US consumer market anyway – leaving most Americans with little choice about where their dollars go – this is a company that maintains harmful social policies. Amid accusations of falling below industry standards for employee pay to systematically discriminating against female employees, Wal-Mart hardly seems to be a beacon of social sustainability.

The company says that they have had strong policies in place against discrimination “for many years”. But they are missing the point.

We should all be speaking up to support companies that are truly thinking radically and systematically about sustainability. Wal-Mart is not – yet – one of those companies.

“Unknowledge” is power

In a world where business as usual in the ways we live and work is most definitely not an option, we can only benefit from accepting there’s a lot we just don’t know or understand yet. Nicholas Nessim Taleb calls this “living with black swans”, or being robust in the face of systematic uncertainty.

Businesses that will be thriving over the next few decades will be those who accept the scale of the risks they face – not merely image-wise, but regarding their very license to operate. Focusing on next quarter’s shareholder return is unlikely to deliver that kind of thinking.

Some in the business community
are already embracing “unknowledge” publically. Dale Vince, founder of renewable energy utility Ecotricity, has stated the need for “a different kind of capitalism” and is one of several business leaders joining WWF’s call for transformational change.

Unsurprisingly, companies in the controversial extractive industries that have the most to lose from a transition to sustainability are huge barriers to action here.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 exposed the gross failure of oil majors like BP to understand and address risks in their businesses. Even so BP continues to insist their business strategy moving forward should be to “continue to move farther into harsh, remote and complex geographies, from deep water to the Russian arctic; from oil sands and unconventional gas to giant fields”.  

Gore admits himself that “wishful thinking and denial lead to dead ends”. Relying on the political system to change is wishful thinking. We need to refocus the debate on solutions for a sustainable future, and overcome the denial that stands in the way.

By continuing to challenge ourselves to find new ways of looking at the crisis we face, we have a shot at achieving Al Gore’s objective of “perceiving important and complex realities clearly enough to promote and protect the sustainable well-being of the many”.  

With or without American leadership.

Natalya Sverjensky is a consultant at Futerra Sustainability Communication and blogs on sustainability at 

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