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.

Next Page: Three Key Points for Corporate Leaders