Humans respond to challenges and that’s the way we’re designed.
If you look back in history many of the great inventions and many of the great institutions were set up out of necessity and in response to a problem.
Humans respond to little problems—like a leaky tap, missing the bus, or your favorite breakfast cereal increasing in price.
We also respond to global problems, like when analysts predict that a resource supply will peak, it can encourage new discoveries or extraction technologies, as occurred with US oil production in the 2010s.
But we forget this.
We think how we are today is either how we will be in the future, or better than how we will be in the future, and we underestimate our capacity to respond.
Sometimes when we respond, it comes too late, or it comes with short term pain—but there’s generally always a response, and in the case of recent events like Brexit or Trump, sometimes it takes us by surprise.
Around the year 2009…
Global emissions were around 15 per cent lower than their present-day level but had still more than doubled since 1970.
Emissions had been steadily increasing for decades in both advanced and emerging economies.
The science of climate change was well understood, with the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report declaring:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level
Yet efforts to do something about it were muted.
Around the same time, countries (including Australia) attempted to implement policies that would reduce emissions but would often face fierce political resistance.
On the technical front, the cost of solar was around 8 times higher than it is today and many other low emissions technologies remained under-developed and out of reach.
In sum, the problem was getting worse and the will and the ability to confront it was miles behind where it needed to be.
Then something happened.
The 2010s saw a series of responses across civil society, business and government put a response to the climate crisis within striking distance.
This is a story about human nature’s willingness and ability to respond to problems.
We’ve been here before
Look around you.
Chances are you have a roof over your head, stored food, and accessible water.
This all came about as a response to the challenges of nature—hunger, thirst, exposure to the elements.
You’re probably in good health and you’ll probably live longer than your ancestors.
The increase in life expectancy is one of the greatest triumphs of human civilization. We have been able to control infectious and parasitic diseases like smallpox and leprosy and we have improved nutrition and enhanced sanitation.
You’re probably also living in a time of relative peace.
Human ability establish political and economic institutions in response to global wars that have helped maintain peace and prosperity for 75 years.
We are living in one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in history—and a key motivator was to respond to the alternative.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s Newton’s third law of motion.
But can it explain human thinking in general?—Do major shifts often spawn a backlash? Can the climate crisis trigger a response?
Civil society’s Concern is increasing alongside the threat
Surveys of public opinion have shown that the public is aware and concerned of the threat posed by climate change.
However, until recently the response from civil society to climate change had been mostly subdued with protests limited to those on the fringes.
The response kicked up a gear in the 2010s, inspired by scientific reports highlighting the need for greater urgency, the technical and policy options to reduce emissions becoming clearer, and catalysed by a general political malaise.
The response saw the emergence of youth activists with public platforms, starting in 2018 when a Swedish schoolgirl inspired by anti-gun violence school strikes in the United States stopped attending classes.
In 2019, global climate strikes saw protests in 150 countries, the largest climate protests in world history.
Community-initiated climate litigation in the Netherlands (2019), France (2020) and Germany (2021) was successful— heightening public awareness have legitimising policy options needed for urgent action.
business is responding as it makes sense for them to do so
The business and finance worlds are also starting to respond.
Could some of this be greenwashing (pretending to be sustainable through marketing rather than substance)? Maybe. There are examples of large companies in entrenched industries pledging change, while maintaining the status quo.
But something else is going on—as of early 2021, a fifth of the world’s 2000 largest public companies committed to a net zero target.
Why should we take these companies’ pledges seriously? The global economy is shifting towards greater sustainability, as the cost of solutions decrease and demand from the public increases and competitors seek a market advantage.
Setting long-term, meaningful targets sends a signal as to where a company is headed, what its strategic investments might be in order to transform its business model.
When Amazon pledges to achieve net zero by 2040 through 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025 and an electric vehicle fleet by 2030, it seems feasible.
Words without actions behind them can erode public trust and damage brands, as Volkswagen experienced in 2015.
Businesses all around the world are making plans to lower emissions and become more sustainable because:
But according to RMIT’s Kel Dummett, the number one reason is government legislation, including the requirement for businesses to publicly report their emissions.
Yes, transparency is vital.
We need to be able to see that a company is doing what it says it’s doing.
Otherwise it’s no different to someone committing to go on a health kick, and then stuffing their face with pizza.
The good news is that a number of countries make businesses report their emissions publicly, including Canada through its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, Japan through the Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Accounting and Reporting System and New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme.
Not only does reporting expose emission levels, it also puts a spotlight on the worst emitters.
Other types of government legislation include mandates, taxes and incentives to produce more sustainable products.
The response has also started to emerge across the stockmarket, where shareholders have pressured fund managers to divest from fossil fuels. ExxonMobil recently lost board seats to an activist hedge fund that is pressuring it to reduce its climate impact and to be more transparent about its climate-related activities.
Governments: Going for net zero
In mid 2019 the UK became the first major economy to pledge a net zero target.
As of January 2022, this has become 147 countries, representing around 90 per cent of global emissions, global GDP, and global population.
To meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, global emissions need to reach net zero by the middle of the 21st century. ‘Net zero’ means reducing the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity until emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere are balanced.
The U.N. climate science panel has said man-made carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by about 45% by 2030, from 2010 levels, and reach “net zero” by mid-century to give the world a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5C and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
Again, is it just words?
Again—maybe and again—transparency matters!
But for some countries, their target has been backed up by action, including Denmark which has halved its emissions since 1996 and plan to build energy islands offshore and end fossil fuel exploration .
For all countries however, it sends a signal to citizens, businesses and trading partners that this is the direction that the country and its economy is heading and if you don’t adapt, you’re at risk of being left behind.
In addition to net zero targets, policies to reduce emissions have been more widely deployed and are growing rapidly. Policies are also becoming more effective over time through trial and error (IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, forthcoming).
A Final Word
Responding to climate change will take a massive effort. It’s unclear whether there will be sufficient infrastructure, access to technology, appropriate investments and political support for low emissions solutions to prevail.
But looking into the future from the year 2009, you would be energized by the response from citizens, businesses and governments that could bring us closer to 1.8°C of warming.
Yes, we are still short of what’s needed to limit warming to 1.5°C, but the political and economic foundations are being laid for an ongoing response.
In addition to the groups mentioned above we are seeing more mature carbon offset markets; more informed and increasingly accurate media coverage; action from public sector organisations, faith based groups, foundations and universities; we are also seeing multilateral organisations steer finance and support towards energy transitions.
Let’s also remember that improvements in energy efficiency and the switch to zero carbon energy sources have led to a decoupling of economic growth and emissions; and that low emissions technologies continue to come along in leaps and bounds. Falling costs and increasing adoption of such low-emission technologies continue to show promise.
Bill Gates said that ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in a decade‘ and with less than three decades to go until 2050, we can expect nothing short of a transformative response.