by Young-Jin Choi
It is the early 2020ies and humankind finds itself in the midst of multiple social, economic, political, geopolitical and environmental crises across near-term and long-term horizons. It sadly has become apparent by now that in their current shape and form, human societies – in particular their social (legal, economic, financial, political, educational) systems and institutional foundations – are not well designed to effectively respond to this perilous situation. While there are near-term risks, including a war in Europe, an economic and energy crisis, inflation, and catastrophic weather events that must be managed in a fair and sustainable manner, we also must not lose sight of the big picture, the greatest challenge of our time. Overlapping with the near-term crises are two constantly increasing mutually reinforcing threats of an escalating hot house earth dynamic (triggered by uncontrolled fossil fuel production/consumption and cascading climate tipping points) on the one hand, and the threat of nuclear conflict driven by planetary heating (alongside increasingly scarce resources, rising sea levels, mass migration, access to water, arable land, etc) on the other.
Judging by the current state of public discourse and the poor quality of political and economic leadership at display, there appears to be a huge unmet need for a deeper contextual and scientific understanding of today’s generations’ historic responsibility, combined with a lack of awareness about the drivers and root causes behind our inability to adequately manage the climate-nuclear crisis thus far, which includes market and regulatory failure, misinformation, undue lobbyism and ultranationalism. In particular, there is a need to understand that the rapid and drastic GHG emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed to succeed cannot be expected to come from voluntary pledges, netzero commitments, ESG practices, improved transparency, or data quality. Voluntarism might have worked a few decades ago, but as our time as a species is running out, mandatory measures to enforce real-world decarbonization pathways has become a critical success factor. This doesn’t imply a need for a planned economy, rather a need to make full use of the combined accelerating forces of market incentives, technological progress, and mandatory rules and laws.
For the past decades, climate regulation and green (public) spending have been kept far below their potential, largely because the voice of scientific reason calling for rapid decarbonization (#racetozero) has been too weak relative to the forces resisting change. Clearly, we are seeing Kurt Lewin‘s „force field“ theory of change at work here, with the fossil fuel industry and ultranationalist social agents having spent enormous resources to sabotage, water down and delay meaningful climate action. Given that we are already far too late, and a window of opportunity is closing, we must urgently expand the Overton window, move beyond voluntarism, and push as hard as possible for nothing less but a determined “emergency turnaround” at a global scale. A great transformation is needed in two ways:
While the headwinds may appear overwhelming, there are also hopeful, favorable tailwinds to build upon: Only recently, technological and economic improvements of renewable electricity and electrification have begun to materialize, which as fundamentally shifted the competitive landscape. In addition to technological tipping points, there are social tipping points that might positively surprise us, if they can be harnessed. Even though the decarbonization pathway of a 1.5 C scenario may appear increasingly difficult to achieve under the current frameworks and conditions of market and regulatory failure, we can still come rather close if we really wanted to. To this end, I believe that an “all at once” approach including these four measures is mission-critical:
The aforementioned measures have a mutually reinforcing effect. For example, measures 1-3 are contributing to strengthen the case for measure 4, while measures 2,3 and 4 contribute to increased climate finance allocations. I believe that our private, professional, political and philanthropic engagements for the years to come should be guided by the goal of getting at least some of these measures in place in a timely manner. This could get us a long way towards an “impact economy”, i.e. an ethical and sustainable economic system that discourages and restricts (currently legal) business activities that are causing severe harm, and that supports and enables sustainable, regenerative business activities that create real societal value, including those that would happen to be less profitable under conditions of market failure.