How a Decline in Climate Issue Urgency Will Test Corporate Leaders

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How a Decline in Climate Issue Urgency Will Test Corporate Leaders

In GlobeScan and SustainAbility's latest survey of sustainability experts, we notice a worrying trend emerging: The sense of urgency to address critical sustainability issues is in decline across the globe.

In fact, the five most urgent issues on the sustainability agenda -- climate change, water scarcity, food security, poverty, and biodiversity loss -- are all perceived as less urgent challenges than they were in 2009 (see the chart below).

No. Sadly, these issues are not getting better or going away. Rather, experts' views are changing, and one has to wonder: What's causing the decline?

How experts rate key sustainability issues. Chart courtesy of SustainAbility and GlobeScan.

Why the Decline?

There are several plausible explanations for the decline, including:

  • Economic issues (e.g. job security, consumer confidence) have displaced environmental and social concerns at the top of the sustainability agenda. [Note, however, that the urgency around poverty and economic development have also fallen in our survey from 2009 to 2011.]
  • Experts are beginning to accept these issues as a permanent part of our social and political landscape.
  • People are frustrated with the lack of political will to enact meaningful and necessary policy changes.
  • Higher-order issues (e.g. governance and transparency) are becoming even more important as precursors to effectively addressing the others (e.g. climate and biodiversity).
  • The size and scale of environmental and social issues have become so overwhelming that people are shifting their focus toward issues that relate to them personally.
  • As issues -- like climate change -- become more established or widely known, the sense of urgency naturally dissipates. In other words, people perceive issues as more urgent when they receive less attention from business leaders and policymakers.

In reality, the decline in urgency is most likely due to a combination of these factors.

The Challenge for Business Leaders

The implications of climate change, water scarcity and so on to business haven't changed regardless of the drop in this year's survey numbers. In fact, the situation on the ground reflects that the problems are getting more severe, implying that the consequences to business will be more severe.

Rather, the challenge for business leaders in 2012 will be to avoid complacency and backsliding on their sustainability commitments in spite of this downward trend. This scenario isn't hard to fathom. With experts -- or stakeholders, more broadly -- less concerned over key issues and corporations facing less external pressure than in years past, perhaps corporate progress on the sustainability agenda will slow or grind to a halt.

This, of course, comes as the United States enters another election year, and policy debates thicken. It also comes as world leaders are preparing for Rio+20, and facing a fresh opportunity to catalyze global action on the sustainability agenda. As my colleagues Mark Lee and Chris Coulter explained in an article last week, "The private sector, with its unique ability to enact change rapidly across markets in every region, as well as the potential to scuttle policy reform that it views as threatening, will be a critical player [in Rio]."

With so much on the line, now is the time for business to be bolder, not meeker, on its sustainability commitments. We're seeing only flashes of courageous corporate leadership in 2011, from the likes of Unilever's Paul Polman, who in addition to championing his company's Sustainable Living Plan has been on the record recently arguing that business has a vital role to play in remedying the problems plaguing society. Speaking in regards to last month's riots in London, Polman said, "It's not just about the profit and loss account. We have to look to the long-term benefit of society."

If anything, we need more Paul Polmans -- and other true leaders of industry -- to enact systemic change on key environmental and social issues. We need more Polmans to pull policymakers and industry peers toward rapid action. And, we need new Polmans to emerge, accelerating society's transition to a more sustainable future.

Three Key Takeaways for Corporate Leaders

So, what can corporate executives take away our most recent survey? Here are three key points:

  • The need to address sustainability issues is still urgent: While urgency is trending downward, the sheer percentage of experts who perceive climate change, for example, as urgent remains high (81 percent). Remain responsive to your key stakeholders.
  • Take the long view: Although the level of urgency has changed, the top issues remain the same. Continue to focus on the same strategic issues as before.
  • They need courageous leaders: 2012 -- Rio+20, in particular -- is a critical opportunity for companies to catalyze global action. Leaders who act on this global stage will put distance between themselves and companies who hold to the status quo.

More information on GlobeScan and SustainAbility's latest survey is available at SustainAbility's Library, www.sustainability.com/library.

Image CC lIcensed by Flickr user BeauGiles.