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Conversations, culture and constructive climate action

Make advocacy and inquiry a mantra, and you have a recipe for a culture of productive discourse that propels sustainability, climate action, and other strategic and operational imperatives.

Conversation concept

Image via Shutterstock/Nchisft

With our planet heating, climates changing radically and savage consequences accelerating, every organization must adapt by changing how it does business. With climate change in mind, the new Project Drawdown document "Climate Solutions at Work" can be a powerful springboard for elaborating an essential internal change: Developing a strong, productive culture of sustainability.

For various reasons, this type of organizational change — culture generally, and sustainability cultures in particular — is especially challenging to pull off. Culture change requires organization-wide leadership and engagement throughout the company. Second, sustainability requires substantially bigger and faster steps in new directions. Third, maintaining and accelerating efforts over time will be at least as imperative as quick early steps. Due to many countervailing forces, it feels like the nearer the sustainability destination, the more we're slip-sliding away.

It will take a compelling culture to sustain sustainability, nonstop and indefinitely, as needed.

Good things are happening; it’s not all bad

Thankfully, good things are happening that can pave the way for dramatic progress. Public opinion and CEO concerns are trending in helpful directions; the fossil fuel industry faces substantial pressures from lawsuits, investors, markets and other sources; and journalistic coverage is improving and holds untapped potential to turn the tide.

Meanwhile, tailor-made for GreenBiz readers, Project Drawdown’s new guide will help organizations and leaders rethink and kickstart higher-leverage climate action.

The Drawdown vision

Project Drawdown's research indicates that drawdown — the point at which atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations stop climbing and begin declining steadily — is achievable by mid-century if we make the best use of all climate solutions available today.

Imagine the impact of widespread adoption and earnest pursuit of this shared vision:    

  • Changing the business model to become drawdown-aligned, in which a company goes far beyond a narrow focus on emissions reductions. Such a model leverages social, political and financial capital to reduce emissions well beyond own operations, helping to secure planetary health and a just climate future.
  • Focusing the business model on scaling climate solutions while phasing out incompatible parts of the business.
  • Embedding climate considerations into every consequential decision in every part of the business.
  • Accelerating goals, including interim targets, and reducing or eliminating reliance on offsets (except in exceptional cases).

These are far more than pie-in-the-sky aspirations; they are serious, multi-consequential stretch goals, contrasting profoundly with the default goal of reducing harmful emissions at a comfortable pace without sacrificing much business-as-usual.

Conversations are the building blocks of change

Pursuing sustainability is one of the most difficult (and therefore rare) of human behaviors. It involves being truly proactive by taking future-focused, change-inducing actions that alter current paths to create better outcomes than what would otherwise lie ahead. A crucial type of proactivity is exercising "voice"— for instance, initiating conversations that need to be had and making comments that others might not embrace. Employee voice can be the first step toward successful long-term innovation.

Conversations need to be honest and thorough enough to be productive

Productive conversations are real work that can provide the starting blocks for pursuing a new and improved sustainability vision. A well-intended voice on important issues, by the way, is a vital act of leadership, regardless of the person’s hierarchical position.

Ideas: Please discuss

Project Drawdown's Climate Solutions at Work guide is full of practicable suggestions and valuable conversation starters. Most organizations are addressing some of them but not tapping their real potential to achieve drawdown by 2050. The ideas range from ensuring the board is climate-competent to creating pathways for every job to be a climate job; from vetting clients and partnerships for bad actors to pushing banks and asset managers to reduce their emissions and align investment portfolios with appropriate targets; and from offering climate-friendly retirement plans and investment opportunities to using social and financial power to advocate for policies at every government level.

With or without Project Drawdown, corporate sustainability professionals already have ideas and networks, some sense of which colleagues want to engage and clues about what has a chance of gaining traction. Sometimes, though, it's even more important to realize that many people have ideas they don't mention, let alone actively champion.

Because conversations are the basic building blocks of change, and ideas can come from anywhere, it's possible never to have a shortage of ideas — including great ones that others want to pursue. Conversations, though, need to be honest and thorough enough to be productive

How to achieve honesty and thoroughness? With two shared mindsets: advocacy and inquiry (check this article for details), Effective advocacy provides good ideas with good thinking behind them, plus inquiry (listening and questioning) in the spirit of learning and developing the very best ideas and plans. This dual mindset can drive conversations anywhere and everywhere, up and down the hierarchy plus horizontally across units.

Easier said than done, of course, just like everything else. But their doability is the point, along with their significant impact. Make advocacy and inquiry a mantra, and you have a recipe for creating a culture of productive discourse. Such a culture can consistently propel sustainability, climate action and other strategic and operational imperatives.

A transformative sustainability culture can accelerate and maintain progress

Only a strong culture can keep something going persistently into distant futures. More than good conversations as starting points, a robust culture can maintain attention, effort and progress over time — essential for our long-term sustainability imperative. The University of Western Ontario’s Network for Business Sustainability offers one of the best documents about building the needed culture.

Long-time MIT professor Edgar Schein holds that creating a robust and appropriate culture is a leader's most important task. Crucial for sustainability or any culture are the ongoing leader behaviors that develop and sustain or break it. According to Schein, these include what leaders regularly pay attention to, measure and control; how leaders react to critical incidents; how they allocate resources, rewards and status; and the kinds of stories they tell. You don’t truly arrive until sustainability and climate action inform decision-making processes throughout the organization.

A culture generates real power only as employees throughout the organization engage conscientiously and collaboratively. Organization-wide engagement requires and develops leaders everywhere: top-down, within teams, bottom-up, peer-to-peer and silo-busting. Plus, crucially, collaborating across units, organizations, sectors and geographies.

Urgency and agency

Returning to the fact that helpful changes are on the rise: A survey released this fall shows, perhaps amazingly, that most U.S. voters want their country to help developing countries meet their climate mitigation and adaptation needs. Of course, political contexts and power dynamics become highly relevant as blockers or drivers of climate change and climate action. Business can be highly potent in this arena; an outstanding new resource on power and conflict among the biggest players is climate scientist Michael Mann's "The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet."

Only a strong culture can keep something going persistently into distant futures.

One of Mann’s emphases is psychological, specifying two crucial mindsets: urgency and agency. Urgency seems to be growing, and you can read elsewhere about developing it. But for the long haul that lies ahead, the essential feeling is one of agency: feeling able to make a difference.

This comes from strategic thinking, engaged top-down leadership, leveraging personal and collective powers, and the actions of many leaders — champions — who build bridges and mobilize others throughout organizational and societal systems.

Project Drawdown wants you to use its new guide as your North Star, and to share your successes and learnings far and wide. Its vision, strategies and tactics can help to energize employers and employees, build more powerful coalitions, and help channel creativity and energy to where they seriously need to go.

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