The social construction of climate change

7 12 2009

This week has seen the thin veneer of rational discourse about carbon reduction targets and financial implications of climate change responses truly blown apart as the so-called ‘climate change debate’ moves out of the realm of scientific peer-reviewed research and into brazen name-calling. Near libellous assaults are volleyed from all sides as the language of science drowns in the cacophony of pseudo-religious idiom – ‘denier’, ‘evangelist’, ‘convert’.

This week’s Spectator makes the audacious claim that it is the ‘still, small voice of calm’ amidst the madness, and yet liberally sprinkles it’s varied contributions with lines like ‘climate change has mutated from a debate into a catechism’, and ‘the climate change debate in Britain exhibits the hallmarks of a collective craze. Asking dispassionate questions is not sacrilegious’. I find this use of language fascinating. Particularly in Western democracies, and even more so in the Boardroom, the moral ground is won by appearing to offer the most rational argument, delivered unemotionally and with reference to ‘objective evidence’. This, after all, is the foundation of scientific discourse.  But clearly we cannot step outside of, or ‘bystand’ such a discourse, whilst we comment upon it. Whatever language we choose to use – bitter recrimination, zealous advocate, logical dispassionate – we are taking a position and constructing an argument.

Our choices – about how we analyse and interpret the scientific data, how we choose to act upon what we learn – however objective they may seem, are still founded upon deep-rooted and socially constructed belief systems. And it’s only when we are willing to question our own assumptions publicly that we can honestly participate in this debate.


Ashridge makes contribution to Copenhagen climate negotiations

7 12 2009

Ashridge has made its own small but direct contribution to the COP15 Copenhagen climate negotiations beginning today. Two weeks ago, Ashridge was invited to participate in a United Nations forum convened at Copenhagen Business School on climate change and the implications for management education, as a feed-in event to the Copenhagen negotiations. Ashridge Chief Executive Kai Peters was invited to speak on a panel with peers from Bentley College in the US, China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), St Gallen and others, and I was also delighted to be invited to introduce a corporate panel with representatives from Novo Nordisk and Vattenfall, and summarise recent Ashridge research about CEO expectations regarding leadership development, management education and the role of business schools. (you can read more about this at

Manuel Escudero, speaking on behalf of the United Nations, said that business schools had not kept up with the pace of change as companies refocus on the commercial opportunities that will be at stake in the third industrial revolution – the transition to a low carbon economy. Business schools, he said, have a tremendous opportunity to create inspiring learning opportunities by focusing the creative energies of the next generation of business leaders on the commercial opportunities of the great challenges of our time. 

To achieve this, Kai Peters commented, business schools must look at four issues around curriculum content: issues of sustainability must be substantial, universal to all participants on programmes rather than “elective”, applied and discussion-based rather than only theoretical and, finally, integrated into all subject areas. 

The two day conference, which also featured contributions from McKinsey, KPMG and IBM, was convened to draft a declaration that is going to be presented to the conference chair at the start of the United Nations COP15 climate negotiations. The declaration states that “business schools around the world call upon political leaders to agree to an ambitious global climate treaty at COP15.” The declaration states that, to effectively support an ambitious climate framework, business schools agree they should integrate climate-related topics into the heart of the management education curriculum, lead research into the changing role of business in a low carbon economy, and lead by example by greening their own campuses, with an aim to reduce green house gas emissions by 40% by 2020 and reach carbon neutrality by 2030. 

You can read the full declaration here: 

The Copenhagen Conference Declaration: A Call to Action for Management Education

1010 Campaign Admits Bomb Maker

5 12 2009

Apparently the 1010 climate change campaign has caused controversy by allowing a missile maker to join ….

I don’t mind much…. But it does reminds me of “Analyse This” in which Billy Crystal is a therapist called in to treat mob boss Robert de Niro …. Crystal asks, “so what’s the outcome from these sessions? That you end up being a happy well adjusted gangster?” ….

Personally I can see why 10:10 can sign up the missile maker and not the airport – that makes sense within their measurement system ….

But this just reminds us of the dangers of target setting and the problem of focusing on false proxies … We measure what we can measure whether it matters or not… And when we set measures to focus on, we know that we then fail to spot gorillas.   Let’s not forget that CO2 is a symptom …. and all of the work around climate (important though it is) is about symptom fixing ….

We have the “us and them / binary / axis of evil” mentality in which we believe that bombs can “work” in addressing world issues. With this mental map we won’t have a chance of addressing the fragmentation at the root of the split between humanity and the rest of the natural world …. 

So ultimately I don’t care much who 10:10 lets in or keeps out.

I do care that we don’t end up fantasising we can continue to operate an insane “take,make, trash” system so long as we control carbon

We can’t, we haven’t got enough planet to do it on. 

All that will lead to is killing ourselves and lots of our fellow “other than human” co-dwellers, in a frenzy to control the very last drops and grains of earth “resources”  …. all using carbon free bombs of course….

Chris Nichols

December 2009

Delusion is the solution, apparently ….

5 12 2009

 Political speeches at the CBI conference break free of reality ….

 I have a problem with what Gordon Brown and David Cameron have been saying recently. Keen to compete on “fiscal reality” they have both offered budgetary toughness and plans for debt repayment. The trouble is the debt repayment plan requires a return to “growth”.

 I don’t like to be the messenger of doom, but we need old style “growth” like we need a return to business as usual. We can afford neither.

 All governments of the post-war era have colluded to build a society where we measure our well-being by what we buy, consume and earn. We have replaced community and family with ASBOs and ISAs. It hasn’t worked yet and it can’t work in the future.

 We have just one planet and it is plain stupid to place all our chips on a strategy for survival that depends on infinite energy and infinite mineral resources. We have neither. We need a more resilient way. Certainly not one based on ever more extraction, production, consumption and waste, with all the biosphere carnage and social injustice that goes with it.

 George Osborne (1) writes that a Conservative Treasury “will be a green ally, not a foe”. Good. Start by measuring national wellbeing by something less addictively illusory than economic growth.

 Whoever rules, there are hellishly tough questions to be addressed. Let’s start by ending the delusion that we can grow our way out of this crisis. It is our addiction to growth that got us here in the first place.

Chris Nichols

December 2009

 (1)     Source: The Independent, Tuesday 24th November 2009

“The Name is Bond, High Income Bond”:

5 12 2009

Credit Agricole is right, it is time for Green Banking. But let’s be sure what we mean ….

 Credit Agricole, the major global bank has signed Sean Connery to front its drive into “Green Banking”. Claiming a “new business model” focused on “responsible growth, with a reduced risk profile”, the campaign launch is accompanied by an apocalyptic video (see

 The movie is high on special effects, light on plot. What is Credit Agricole actually planning to do here?

 They are certainly right that the world needs green banking. But I worry that the business model of major banks may fall somewhat short of the respect for life and the biosphere that we desperately need.

 The current fashion rush to get active around climate change does not address the depth of crises we are facing. Banking that invests in the continued stoking of consumer led growth can only ever be part of the problem, no matter how green it gets painted.

 We are enmeshed in crises of habitat loss, species extinction and food supply that raise policy challenges to make the current financial and fiscal crises look trivial. All of us, business and wider society alike need to learn how to become resilient in the face of multiple threats caused by our current activities of resource use and wastage. Climate change is an important symptom and must be addressed. But addressing climate change alone is to misunderstand the issue. A more difficult systemic assessment is necessary.

 If green banking is to be worth the name, it needs to be banking that breaks with our global addiction to growth as a solution for all ills, to break our addiction to the production and consumption as the source of wellbeing.

 Is Credit Agricole part of the solution? I really do hope so. But it will take more than a movie and the signing of “Bond, corporate Bond” to convince me.

 Chris Nichols

December 2009

Swedish State Secretary for Energy, Enterprise and Communications presents Ashridge Sustainable Innovation Award

3 12 2009

The winners of the 2009 Ashridge Sustainable Innovation award have just been announced. The award is an essay competition run in association with the European Academy of Business in Society (EABIS), Hewlett-Packard (HP) and WWF.  Jonathan Alexander, a Masters student from the University of Bath, was awarded first place, with Luc Petit from Ashridge Business School placing second and Srikanth Madani from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland coming third.

The award seeks the best ideas from MBA and other post-graduate students on sustainable innovation and creating value from the shift to a low carbon economy. Jonathan received the top prize for his entry: €7,000, a six-month mentorship with HP and career advice from Spencer Stuart. Luc and Srikanth also receive career advice from Spencer Stuart as well as €5000 and €3000 respectively. All three winners were presented with their awards by Jöran Hägglund, Swedish State Secretary for Enterprise, Energy and Communications, on behalf of the Swedish Presidency of the European Union at the EU Presidency conference ‘Eco-efficient Economy – Towards Innovative and Sustainable Competitiveness’ held in Linköping, Sweden on 2 November 2009.

Presenting the prizes, Mr Hägglund said “To successfully transition to a low carbon economy, we need to harness and focus the creative and entrepreneurial energies of today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. The focus is frequently on the importance of technological innovation, but a necessary precondition for this innovation to occur is that we change the way we think, and see not problems but opportunities, and focus our creative energies in this direction. Europe’s business schools have a crucial role to play in making this happen. This is why the European Union is supporting organisations like EABIS and why I’m delighted to present this award on behalf of the Swedish Presidency of the European Union.”

Matthew Gitsham, Director of Ashridge’s Centre for Business and Sustainability, added “As we’ve celebrated our 50th anniversary at Ashridge this year and look to the future, we believe the role of a business school in the 21st Century is to be an incubator of creativity and innovation, and to be focusing the entrepreneurial energies of today’s and tomorrow’s leaders on the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development. We are therefore delighted to have been able to work in a unique partnership with HP, WWF and EABIS to create the Ashridge Sustainable Innovation Award.

“HP is delighted to support the Ashridge Sustainable Innovation Award,” said Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice President, HP Global Citizenship and Social Innovation, speaking to coincide with the ceremony. “We believe it is very important for students not just to think about the sustainability challenges that await them when they enter their professions, but also to recognise the opportunities that they have to actively contribute to a low carbon economy.”

The winners were chosen by an independent panel of judges including Sir Paul Judge, Benefactor of Judge Business School, Viscount Etienne Davignon, Vice-Chair, Suez-Tractebel, Eric Cornuel, Director General, EFMD, Jeanette Purcell, Chief Executive, Association of MBAs, Della Bradshaw, Executive Education Editor, Financial Times, Kai Peters, Chief Executive, Ashridge, Dennis Pamlin, Policy Advisor, WWF, Tom Dodd, Policy Advisor, European Commission, Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice President, HP Global Citizenship and Social Innovation, Anthony J Vardy, Spencer Stuart, and Rachel Jackson, ACCA.

As part of this award WWF visited key partner universities of HP and EABIS in the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom in winter 2008 and in 2009  to engage tomorrow’s leaders in discussions about innovation for a sustainable future. Around 500 students participated in the workshops that have taken place to date.

The winning and shortlisted entries have been published by ACCA, and can be downloaded from

Negotiating by numbers – Far from certainty and agreement in Copenhagen

1 12 2009

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted” – Albert Einstein


With the current climate negotiations about to open formally in Copenhagen next week, we at Ashridge are looking on with interest, excitement and some trepidation. In particular at how 15,000 delegates can be successfully brought into effective dialogue and participation, to get their diverse voices and needs heard.


We frequently use a model here at Ashridge, derived from the work of Ralph Stacey and Bill Critchley, that considers what happens in social interactions when we are far from certainty and far from agreement. It’s a model that draws on complexity thinking and I find it an invaluable framework for understanding what is going on in Copenhagen right now.


We are far from certainty about the impacts of climate change: Whilst there is overwhelming consensus among the scientific community now that climate change is happening, that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and that rapid global de-carbonising of society is necessary, exactly how specific locations will be affected can only be considered in terms of probabilities.


We are far from agreement about how to respond: As Mike Hulme has pointed out, even if we can agree on how to interpret the science (and that’s a matter of much debate), we still have the issue of response, and how our framing of that response is constructed through our local cultural norms and social interactions. The ‘essential’ questions that need answers in Copenhagen look seductively rational at first glance…


1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?

2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?

3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?

4. How is that money going to be managed?   (Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC).


…. but the answers hinge upon some deeply entrenched and often unquestioned assumptions about some very non-rational and potentially emotive issues: about social responsibility across human-constructed borders and across generations; about blame, shame and justice; about ownership, property and individual identity; and about our attitudes to risk, probability and leadership. I could go on.


However, as Fred Pearce is keen to point out this week, ‘there is good news too’. We have demonstrated historically our human capacity for pretty rapid societal change – just consider the technological and social changes of the last 50 years.


And as Stacey and Critchley have discussed (link?), systems that are far from certainty and far from agreement – that are at the ‘edge of chaos’ – have an incredible capacity for creativity and the flourishing of innovation. As we move out towards the far reaches away from certainty and agreement, and just before we tip into complete chaos, radical change is possible.  But it’s possible if we are willing to surface and question our own assumptions about how the world is and should be, experiment with new thinking and engage in novel ways, and yet with some clarity of purpose. There has never been such an urgent need to do so, and such opportunity to fundamentally shift our global political, economic and social paradigm.