How to create a sense of urgency around sustainability and climate action

How to create a sense of urgency around sustainability and climate action

polar bear on an ice floe
Shutterstock Ritesh Chaudhary
A polar bear sitting on the edge of an ice floe in the Svalbard Archipelago.

On Oct. 8, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its far-reaching report painting a somber picture of Earth’s potentially rapid demise. Carbon emissions are up for the second consecutive year, no longer down as they were after the Paris climate accord. Every country, every sector and every industry — is it too much to expect every company? — must ratchet up its strategic and operational efforts to slow climate change and create a stronger, more sustainable future.

Of course the report hasn’t fazed the Trump administration, which assumes that the world will fry by 2100. Instead of seeing climate reports as a reason to take constructive action, the administration considers our dangerous future to be an excuse to just give up and roll back regulations. Assuming that our planet’s fate is sealed, they hope simply to keep reaping profits. 

Yet the IPCC report and the best-informed climate scientists are very clear in their message. As IPCC chair Hoesung Lee asserted in a press conference in Seoul, we can stop climate change. But not without a sea change in how the world adapts. We must work more aggressively and collaboratively than ever before.

"Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is not impossible," Lee stated, "but will require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society. Every bit of warming matters." 

Joel Makower summarized in GreenBiz our need to rapidly make "far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. In short, changing almost everything." Specifying the key details of the technical findings, Makower quoted Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute:  Required now is an "emergence of global leadership that is missing today. Identifying and supporting this leadership must be a top priority."

We are not doomed. But as Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s environmental minister, told The Guardian, "We are moving too slowly. We have to do more of everything, faster."

Hoping, fingers crossed, won’t do the job. 

We need to build a profound sense of urgency, what esteemed Harvard business professor John Kotter describes not as a fear-based, frantic, out-of-control busy-ness, but as a reality-based sense of determination. Here are some suggestions:

Counteract complacency: Kotter discusses the complacency that undermines urgent action. Large and successful companies are generally vulnerable, and perhaps most everyone is vulnerable to complacency when it comes to sustainability. Common contributors to general complacency include a lack of major, visible crises; mediocre, narrow and short-term performance standards: a low-candor, low-confrontation culture; problem denial; too much happy talk from senior management; and lack of impactful feedback from external sources.

So, compensate for such obstacles that exist in the sustainability domain. Complacency-busters start with straightforward conversations and follow with deeper changes in strategies, systems and reward systems that counter those urgency hindrances.  

Use business and economic logic: Kotter suggests motivating urgent action by knowing and conveying current realities and pressures in the marketplace and competitive arena.  In the United States, most voters want climate action, and this will reveal itself even more strongly in consumer and investor pressures for responsible action. Useful also is to provide data about strong competitors’ performance. Climate scientist and communication specialist Katharine Hayhoe suggests using China’s recent progress to capture Western attention and motivate faster, more dramatic competitive action.

Describe both problems and opportunities, costs and benefits and short- and long-run projections. Repeat major messages frequently, so people remember and come to accept them. Discuss what customers and investors want, and what you and colleagues want from one another. Ask people to think about how they can creatively apply their particular expertise and interests to sustainability, ranging from their business functions to favorite technologies to societal and personal concerns about climate impacts.

Employ the most productive emotions while showing people what they can do: Alarmism doesn’t motivate effective action, and it might be just as harmful as climate change denial. Creating fear with doomsday scenarios usually turns people off, loses their attention and creates pushback. Scientists have been stereotyped as purposeful fearmongers, when in fact many have soft-pedaled the fast-approaching, dangerous climate thresholds and tipping points. Neither approach, fear-based or overly tempered, works well. 

While it’s not clear if any data have validated its use, anger sometimes might work. You might spur some action if you show people stories of environmental destruction where leaders have violated our trust. Study and discuss the Trump administration’s destructive decisions and behaviors. Perhaps watch Lesley Stahl’s "60 Minutes" interview with President Donald Trump or read the transcript of the climate change portion. Maybe watch a PBS "Frontline" or other documentary about how the Heritage Foundation and some companies and politicians sabotage good sustainability intentions. It’s not hard to spot anger-inducing true news stories about fake news propagandists. 

But anger is also divisive. And because climate change is such a massive problem, we must use positive motivators that bring us together and help us more quickly see and use collective strengths.

What can we do better, if fear, temperance, and anger don’t consistently motivate the kinds of unified action we need?

The most action-inducing feelings are hope and worry. There are plenty of reasons to worry, especially if we sit back and let others decide our planet’s fate. There’s also plenty of reason for hope.

Grasping this idea, do whatever you can to develop and sustain people’s self-efficacy — their belief that they can succeed in the mission. Gene Kranz, former NASA flight director of Apollo 13 (and more) fame, personified this kind of leadership, inspiring people with his convictions that "failure is not an option", "I don’t want to hear what [the lunar module] can't do! I want to know what it can do!" and "Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing." Kranz also encouraged, "Whatever happens, you’re capable of solving the problem."

Discuss setbacks to keep worry alive, but also tell attention-getting, positive stories about progress and successes in the form of demonstrable impact, business and human as well as environmental. Along the way, continually encourage active learning and problem-solving. 

Create and promote a strong sustainability vision: Leverage this by engaging employees and other stakeholders in creating your sustainability vision. Describe not just a goal or mission, but a more vivid picture of a full-fledged sustainability culture emphasizing high aspirations and world-class innovation.

Ideally, too, the vision encourages people to work with others outside their own silos, including interorganizational collaborations. For example, the energy industry and environmentalists need to — and can — work together productively

Demonstrate servant leadership: Do whatever you can to help others achieve their sustainability goals. Do the same with your colleagues and employer as servants to their communities.

Lead adaptively: This is essential. Engage in adaptive systems leadership as I urged with climate scientist Michael Mann in Nature Climate Change and as elaborated in great depth by Heifetz. Adaptive leadership requires more leaders and more effective leaders, working everywhere and collaboratively throughout complex social systems. Heifetz provides excellent strategic and tactical detail about how leaders can best work with the human element over time.

Adaptive leaders know that they don’t know everything, experiment with a variety of approaches and learn as they go. Despite the uncertainties, wherever they are, they jump into the pool.

Other species must adapt to climate change; so must we as leaders.

Model controlled urgency: Prioritize. Repeat your messages. Don’t just talk; decide. And don’t just decide; act. Be passionate, because climate change truly is a vital cause.

The tactics described here center on creating urgent action. But the next stage of full-fledge adaptation is to sustain sustainability, which requires maintaining the sense of purpose necessary for true cultural change. This is the ongoing goal (and topic for a future article) that spurs and supports the most meaningful discussions, effective action and long-term impact.