Cancún, the Economist, and self-fulfilling prophecies

4 12 2010

The Economist’s leader article on climate change at the beginning of the Cancún summit paints a bleak picture. Focusing on how to adapt to a changing climate, the story of the article to my reading seems to be that disaster is looming, and although it is technically possible to avert, humankind has largely given up the will to achieve this: “Even if the currently moderate pace of emissions reduction picks up, the likelihood is that the Earth will be at least 3oC warmer at the end of this century than it was at the start of the industrial revolution… in the wake of the Copenhagen summit, there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam… the fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over.”

Better, then, the Economist argues, to focus on how to live with warmer temperatures. Although there is talk of a massive transfer of resources to help the most vulnerable, it’s not unreasonable to come to the conclusion from the pretty thorough analysis in the accompanying article later in the same issue that in all likelihood, adapting to climate change will in reality involve richer people looking after themselves and leaving poorer people to a pretty bleak fate. Leaving aside the morality of this, even for richer people this strategy is only likely to work for a majority for a generation or two: “Since the beginning of time, creatures have adapted to changes in their environment. Unfortunately such adaptation has always meant large numbers of deaths.”

Now I’m not saying that adapting to climate change isn’t an important thing to be talking about, and its good to see the Economist putting it on the front cover, but the question this article raises for me is this: what kind of actions does a vision of the future like this provoke?

Ashridge Business School is a unique institution blending MBA and other executive degree programmes with customised executive education and change consulting for corporate and public sector clients. We consider our core strengths to be in the fields of leadership, strategy and change, and so we have plenty of specialists who think they know a thing or two about change. My colleague, Alexandra Stubbings, for example, is an organisational development and change consultant by profession and is co-head of Ashridge’s Engaging with Sustainability change consulting practice; her recent client work on climate and culture change includes working with new UK parliamentarians from across the three main political parties as well as several corporate clients.

One of the key principles of her work is that the small scale day-to-day decisions people make tend to be consciously or unconsciously informed by the ideas they have about what the future is going to be like. And these small-scale day-to-day decisions can actually play a pretty significant role in making these visions of the future come true. Think of a business going through hard times – if clients and employees start to believe the organisation’s going to the dogs, they begin to make decisions that often make it more likely that this will in fact be the outcome. Equally if people have something positive to work towards, and particularly if that vision is shared with others they’re working with, it’s actually far more likely that something like this positive vision will in fact come to pass.

Put simply, it’s the rule of self-fulfilling prophecies. And it leads to a delicate dilemma: how to talk about how serious things are, the gravity of the situation, enough to nudge people into questioning their habitual patterns of behaviour, while at the same time not tipping people into despair but building a positive vision of the future that inspires a constructive road out of trouble?

It means, I think, that we need to talk more about the positive implications of change that is already happening. From humble beginnings in the 1990s for example, there is now a real movement for change within the corporate world that is beginning to transform markets – think for example of the recent announcement by Unilever of its 2020 Sustainable Living Plan. Many companies are beginning to realise its possible to act on climate and not only remain commercially viable but actually to protect and create value (as we currently define it). Many are even going further to lobby public policymakers to change the rules of the game to make it commercially viable to act where it isn’t at the moment. While there’s clearly still a very long way to go, this change has a real momentum now.

What is provoking this change in corporate behaviour? In research by Ashridge and the Academy of Business in Society for the United Nations in 2009, over 90% of CEOs and senior executives polled in a global survey believed that building awareness and skill among senior leadership populations and stimulating a change in organisational culture were required for their organisations to effectively respond to challenges like climate change. And what’s really interesting is that there are actually many organisations investing considerable sums in precisely this area. Ashridge research to be published in early 2011 will present detailed case studies of these kinds of learning and change programmes from large and small organisations based across different regions of the world in different industry sectors. The research will draw out the learning from these innovators for the benefit of the many organisations now beginning to think about how to do this. The findings will be discussed at a major conference at Ashridge on sustainability and organisational change in June 2011.

The awareness, the commitment and the skill to lead change among business leaders is growing, and beginning to lead to developments that are having profound implications for markets as a whole. As with previous industrial transitions, there are tipping points which once passed give the change its own momentum. There are an increasing number of signals that we may already have passed such a tipping point with climate. And the more the corporate world begins to act and become a pressure group on climate, the more this change starts to take on its own momentum and create its own vested interests, the more likely it will be that the kind of public policy responses expected last year at Copenhagen will sooner or later come to pass.

Is the glass half full or half empty? Clearly both, but what we know about change would suggest we’re likely to have a far better outcome if we spend more time talking about it being half full. If people start to recognise that positive change is happening, this becomes factored into their visions of the future, begins to influence their actions today, and starts to contribute to and reinforce the positive change. A positive feedback loop. There is hard work ahead, the job is by no means done, but don’t give up hope yet.

Matthew Gitsham is Director of the Centre for Business and Sustainability at Ashridge Business School.