Climate Change Is Not Real!
“White Lives Matter too!”
“Vaccines are all part of the Plandemic!”
“Trans women are not real women!”
“The earth is flat and polar bear numbers are increasing!”
In our increasingly polarized world, such contentious statements have become a regular part of our everyday lives—and thanks to Elon Musk, on Twitter at least, it will only get worse. These contrary opinions create a dire sense of division, throwing up foes we feel we have to push against and presenting an entire swathe of society that not only doesn’t understand us, but directly threatens our lifestyles and values. The neck-and-neck results of the U.S. midterms are just one manifestation of this disunity.
By now we have all experienced a “discussion” with someone holding a conflicting viewpoint, and the sinking feeling in our stomachs as our finest efforts seem to hit a brick wall. The grimness is compounded by the knowledge that all this in-fighting is preventing us from making real progress on a range of urgent political, social, and environmental issues; one of which—climate change—is so critical that it threatens our very existence.
The current COP27 conference in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh is a case in point. The entire COP enterprise, now in its 30th year, has been mostly characterized by consistent failures, vacuous pledges, and an inability to hit even the most modest of mutually agreed targets. Progress has been fractured, frustrating, and dangerously slow; “woefully inadequate” is the phrase used by its own founding body.
To take only a recent example, the conference agreed at last year’s COP26 in Glasgow to finalize the remaining elements of the Paris Agreement and keep the 1.5°C goal alive. Just one year later, the U.N. Environment Programme's Emissions Gap Report has announced there is now “no credible pathway” remaining to make those pledges happen: instead we’re heading for a 2.8°C rise by 2100, despite robust evidence that just 1°C of warming has already been responsible for most of the 500 extreme weather events and trends.
Fuelling the atmosphere of indifference and cynicism that surrounds the COP events, this year’s conference is being held in a country famous for its human rights abuses. Already the conference organizers have blocked the websites of various human rights groups and key news websites.
As the U.N. secretary general António Guterres announces this week that “humanity is on a highway to climate hell,” maintaining that the fight for a liveable planet will be won or lost in this decade, it’s little wonder that our news feeds are full of activists throwing paint at artworks and cycling around private airfields in a desperate attempt to bring the conversation back to what matters: saving the damn planet.
But while initiating change around such a vast and complex issue can feel like a Sisyphean task, we have also seen some serious glimmers of hope in Joe Biden’s ambitious Green Plan in the U.S., and the return of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) in Brazil, who has promised to protect the Amazon rainforest and clamp down on the illegal logging, mining and land grabbing that has driven the surging deforestation under former president Jair Bolsonaro.
What else can help drive the transformation we so desperately need? What obstructs it? And how can we bring conflicting perspectives together and open up the conversation?
The Art of Persuasion
According to Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, we need to guide people through it. If we’re asking the entire planet to transform their relationship to society and the earth, we have to be willing to help them navigate that transition.
“I think there has been a total failure for walking with millions of people through the psychological transitions necessitated by the kind of progress we want,” said Giridharadas during our last Open House, “And I think that is a collective social obligation.”
Part of the failure to bring enough people along with us is in assuming that our perceived opponents aren’t capable of growth, which in turn leads us to dismiss them. “The culture of the write-off is rooted in the assumption that differences of identity are unbridgeable,” writes Giridharadas in The Persuaders. “That people are too invested in their privileges and interests to change. That the failure to change in the past predicts failure in the future. That people and their opinions are monolithic and strong, rather than complicated and fragile. And therefore the purpose of politics is to protect yourself from others and galvanize your own instead of trying to reach across.”
Political debates can be representative of this process: politicians often don’t really talk—they just write each other off. They don’t want to find common ground; they want to outsmart their opponent and win the primaries. As we can see from the climate change conferences, their failure to either agree among themselves, or work effectively together to reach agreed goals, is directly related to how they show up to conversations. At our worst, we copy that behavior, engaging in a tug-of-war instead of taking an interest, collaborating, trying to find agreement.
This is where persuasion can provide a key role, claims Giridharadas—be it in the context of deep canvassing, political campaigning, or any other initiative. We can change the course of things by changing minds, winning over skepticism, and “creating space among the woke for the still waking.” By doing so, we can appreciate and understand the complexity—the humanity—of our enemies, and build a bridge towards their way of thinking.
What does that mean in real terms? Instead of shouting down the climate deniers online and shaking our fists from a distance at the politicians and governments that constitute COP27, we all need to engage in constructive dialogues that bring us closer together. Don’t think it’s possible? Read this.
The Rise of Shareholder Activism
Let’s begin with business. A large portion of CO2 emissions come from business-driven economic activity, and as we quickly zoom past the era of low-energy lightbulbs and car-sharing pools as effective strategies, new ones are needed.
Employee activism has been one way of persuading companies to improve their carbon footprint. In recent years, this tactic has seen workers at small and big companies (including Amazon and Uber) take their employers directly to task on green issues. With labor markets currently so tight, now is a good moment for workers to ask their bosses for firmer climate commitments.
Another ploy is shareholder activism. Shareholder activists typically buy up a minority stake in a company and then approach boards and executive management to drive positive change in their ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria—a system that itself has been heavily criticized and is set to change. Although some of the tactics can be confrontational, such as threatening litigation, others, like utilizing media channels and simply organizing meetings, allow for collaborative potential.
A big part of the movement is to prevent companies from indulging in greenwashing by pushing Big Oil and energy companies to bring their net-zero goals forward and actually act on their commitments. Many work together with broader coalitions such as Engine No. 1, which successfully placed sustainable investors onto the board of ExxonMobil; the Climate Action 100+ initiative, which comprises 700 investors who manage $68 trillion in assets, and engages with 166 companies; and UK-based NGO ShareAction, which pressures companies involved in chemicals and road transport—often via “tea and biscuits” meetings that favor conversation and collaboration over confrontation.
This kind of persuasive activism is also helping to bridge the gap between public concern and government action, as investors also lobby governments and regulators to demand companies expand their ESG disclosures and deepen their commitments to climate action.
While shareholder activists aim to create change from the inside, other businesses are leading the way themselves by showing how technology can be utilized for positive environmental purposes—a topic highlighted at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in June.
Companies like Ericsson have been busy working on eco-tech solutions that range from robot jellyfish that repair coral reefs, to drones and digital trackers that monitor endangered wildlife, track poachers, and detect wildfires earlier than usual, while AI programs such as DALLE-2 and MidJourney can visualize the future of climate crisis, helping us move from abstraction to reality.
There’s great potential for Web3 to drive environmental impact too. A couple of weeks ago, Ricardo Amaral and Annabelle Low from Project Ark, a platform using Web3 technology specifically for climate solutions, hosted a mini-hackathon during our asynchronous conference, Beautiful Business in Web3. They focused on ReFi, the Regenerative Finance movement, used to build systems for human thriving and plurality, and move from extractive to regenerative economies based on token-based incentives.
NFTs and the metaverse can also be used to support local causes, artists, and changemakers, as well as education initiatives. And the metaverse’s immersive nature offers alternatives to resource-intensive physical goods which can drive consumer demand, resulting in sustainability benefits. The alternative it can provide for business travel is just one obvious perk.
Together with the government of Suriname, one of the greenest countries in the world, Project Ark created a digital twin of the country, GreenVerse, to fund ecotourism and conservation activities by generating new kinds of carbon credits that can be tokenized and sold for the cause. No small beer if we consider that a recent study showed how a digital twin can reduce a building’s carbon emissions by 50 percent. Other projects discussed included offsetting CO2 footprint with tokens and setting up DAO-governed regenerative villages.
The Final Frontier
Inger Andersen, the executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said in the recent Emissions Gap Report that “only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.” While this sounds radical, there is an established and growing movement that directly challenges the expansionist logic of the economic system: degrowth.
With its roots in 1970s French social philosophy, it has steadily expanded throughout academic and mainstream realms. Most recently it has made headlines thanks to viral books such as Capital in the Anthropocene by Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito, a huge hit amongst young people, and Less is More: Why Degrowth Will Save The World, by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel.
One of the principal attractions of degrowth theory is that it shifts the conversation entirely, rethinking our embedded principles of growth, prosperity, and value. The theory underlines how the first economists to talk about economic growth never considered it as a perpetual process, but as a necessary model for a short period of time. In light of a finite earth no longer being able to sustain the idea of infinite growth, the time has come to find a new way forward.
For degrowthers, this new direction needs to be in the shape of a new economic model that formally decouples GDP from the material energy resources that damage the environment. The very concept of sustainable development or “green growth,” for them, is a contradiction in terms—a way for businesses and society to try and have its cake and eat it too.
Academic models have already been emerging and gathering force, including Herman Daly’s “steady-state economy,” which campaigns not only for a reduction in material and energy consumption, but also the redistribution of wealth (within and between countries), and a committed transition from a materialistic to a participatory society.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the revival of communism or socialism per se, as some seem to fear. According to an article in Open Democracy, studies of degrowth economies indicate that “the fundamental macroeconomic variables will still pertain. People will still spend and they will still save. Enterprise will still produce goods and services. Government will still raise revenues and spend them in the public interest. Both the private and public sector will still invest in stocks of physical, human, and social capital.”
Despite the grassroots origins of degrowth, many of the economic proposals suggest the need for a high level of state intervention in the shape of caps, taxes, and regulations. The problem here, of course, is that it brings us back to the inaction of politicians and governments that are too committed to growth and profits to make such substantial changes. If degrowth is to stand a chance, it will clearly need an army of persuaders to make it work—and business will need to assume a leading role in that.
“I think we should have businesses advocating for a fairer society,” Giridharadas says. “I think it’s time business embraced not just the kind of rhetoric of the social good, but showed that it’s willing to fight for things that may be bad for the bottom line in a narrow sense, but good for the society. And I’d love to see more businesses fighting that fight.”
Young people are crucial as persuaders, too. Looking at how “GenZ” voters under 30 have basically stemmed a Red Wave in the current U.S. midterms, Giridharadas admits that “This is extraordinary. We need to spend the next many years thanking them with policy.”