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How leaders can plan for a realistically sustainable future

Honesty graphic

Image via Shutterstock/SNeG17

It’s easy for sustainability professionals — or anyone else for that matter — to fall into a sense of climate despair. So much work lies ahead if humankind has a hope of maintaining some stability and resilience despite warming temperatures and extreme weather.  

Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests the globe is on its way to about 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming if emissions aren’t reduced 40 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Although corporate climate commitments have gone mainstream, global emissions are still on the rise — despite the pause during last year’s initial COVID-19 lockdowns. Amd that daunting outlook, it’s up to industry and political leaders to help change policies and business practices for a more sustainable future.  

The challenge is staying the course amid for the long term, while acting decisively to start turning the tide over the short term.

During VERGE 21 last week, Project InsideOut Founder Renée Lertzman — an expert on turning ecoanxiety into constructive action — suggested that "toxic positivity" isn’t necessarily the right way for leaders to inspire teams working on climate solutions.

It's not up to us to keep ourselves and others hopeful … but rather more about how we hold space for ourselves and each other, and giving us permission to be human.

"​​We've been holding on for so long to outdated beliefs about how we approach change, that it's up to us to keep people and ourselves feeling upbeat, hopeful all the time," Lertzman said. "That flies in the face of everything we know about resilience and the conditions for deep lasting transformative change… It's not up to us to keep ourselves and others hopeful … but rather more about how we hold space for ourselves and each other, and giving us permission to be human." 

Her remarks came during a keynote conversation that also included Michiel Bakker, vice president of global workplace programs at Google, and that focused on breaking the cycle of hope and despair when observing the climate crisis. 

Role of leadership in guiding conversations 

Bakker explained that being realistic and breaking the cycle of going between too optimistic and despairing over the climate crisis will mean that leaders cannot take on the role of cheerleader. 

"[Innovative teams] have a responsibility… to lead, to think through how can we use our environment as a working one, to make our own environments more sustainable, and then to share our learnings —  the good, the bad and the ugly, with the broader world," he said. 

Taking action

Bakker emphasized that leading a team tasked with creating realistic sustainability solutions has required surrounding himself with experts and bringing his grounded perspective to the development of those solutions. Be bold, he advised, even while building confidence through short-term successes. His work includes providing integrated workplace services and experiences, and finding ways to intersect that with sustainability goals for Google. For him, developing those sustainable solutions has meant thinking long-term and collaborating with other experts. 

"[For example] as an organization, we’ve committed to only use carbon-free energy 24/7 by 2030. ... This has now come to the sustainability team and [we] say, 'How do you go from where we are today, in an operation in a world where so much of our energy is not clean?'" Bakker said. 

Youth climate activist Xiye Bastida, who addressed the VERGE audience after Lertzman and Baker, also encouraged leaders to think differently. For one thing: Stop talking about the climate crisis as if it’s happening in the future. Addressing the societal changes that need to be made to address climate issues means understanding that the crisis is here now — it’s not a future event waiting to happen, she said

Bastida explained that being honest and realistic about the crisis and the action has to be paired with drawing on Indigenous communities that have worked on fostering a stronger connection between people, governments and the environment they aim to protect. 

"[In the] United States you like national parks and you like going, but this specific type of seeing the world of caving nature and keeping it away from us is what's causing this disconnect that we have," she said. “That is actually harming people there, because they're telling people that they can have a relationship they've been having with nature." 

Including diverse perspectives

Indigenous leaders and Indigenous-centered environmental movements are beginning to gain more visibility. Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 made global headlines, and this year’s protests against the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline expansion that were led by Anishanabe tribal nation activists did as well. And worldwide climate events such as COP26 are featuring First Nations delegates, who are asking for world leaders to prioritize Indigenous ideas and perspectives for addressing the climate crisis. 

Bastida feels that incorporating an Indigneous perspective — one that sees people as connected to their environment — emphasizes the importance of collective action to develop more holistic solutions. 

"We need to adopt a framework of climate sensibility which means that we need to accept everything — all the emotions, all of the facts about the climate crisis, and actually have the courage to act upon them," Bastida said. "I want you to realize that the frameworks that we've had up until now have not been working because they are based on competition and individualism."

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