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Climate change – emergency, extinction or progress?

Blog 10 Comments

  • Picture of Joss Tantram FRSA
    Joss Tantram FRSA
    A passion for a sustainable, equitable future - and finding our way there.
  • Environment
  • Fellowship

Some urgency has been translated into ambitious public policy commitments but is there still too great a gap between words and action? Are we moving fast enough and with the ambition we require to deliver a world where global temperature stays with the 1.5° Celsius limit?

Extinction inertia... or are signals getting through?

We now appear to have a steady growth in public concern about the dangers of climate change, as evidenced by the activities of Extinction Rebellion and regular school climate strikes across the world. Adults and children alike are asserting their reasonable expectation to grow up and live in a functioning, liveable world.

In partial response, we have seen recent announcements from the UK and Japanese governments committing themselves to net zero carbon emissions by 2050; these announcements have hit the headlines and have hopefully added some momentum to the growing calls to consider climate change as a clear and present danger.

Both these government commitments have flaws, especially around the lack of clarity in the plans and pathways to decarbonisation, as well as the extent to which they rely on as yet unproven or scalable technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Denmark's new government has just joined in - and raised the game - committing the country to a faster decarbonation pathway, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, as well as a target of 100% by 2040. Denmark sees such commitments as an innovation and growth opportunity, perhaps helped by being the home of the world's biggest wind turbine maker, Vestas, and the worlds biggest operator of offshore wind generation, Orsted.

Keeping the home fires burning

There can, however, be a lack of joined up thinking. For example, in 2018, the UK government proposed reducing or removing the requirement for fracking firms to seek planning permission or conduct environmental impact assessments. Another seemingly contradictory action from the UK government is the recent announcement by UK Tax authorities that they intend, in October 2019, to increase the VAT for new solar and storage products from 5% to 20%, while allowing VAT to remain at 5% for coal sold as a fuel for domestic use.

The regional picture

On 20th June, the European Union announced the release of a new framework to help firms measure and disclose climate risks and impacts. The 'EU Taxonomy' is a tool to support companies and investors in identifying economic activities widely considered to be 'green' that can be implemented without unintended negative consequences elsewhere in the environment or society. It is also intended to drive the measurement and disclosure of climate related performance.

The costs of inaction - to divest or not?

So, some change is taking place, some commitments have been made, and the public discourse on climate change seems to be shifting in favour of acceptance and the need for leadership and change.

However: is the change fast or far reaching enough and will it deliver the viable future that humanity needs?

One big area of focus has been on the idea that real change in responding to climate change requires a reconsideration of what we value and where, as a society we put our money.

If we are going to achieve radical change in cutting climate emissions, then certain types of activity are simply not fit for purpose. Some sectors of the economy, historically those considered to be "safe" investments in terms of their steady financial performance, such as coal, oil and natural gas, would have to be seen in a different light.

If our future economy is going to be zero carbon, then those technologies and energy sources which we will need to depend upon, will need to be very different, and we need to reform our concepts of value to consider that sustainable technologies will be the ones which are valuable over the long term.

Two recent stories reflect this value shift:

  1. In July, the RSA committed to divesting its holdings in fossil fuels, as part of a wider global movement to move to sustainable energy production. To date, over 1,000 organisations have committed to divestment.
  2. In contrast, the penalties of holding on to what are increasingly being considered as "stranded assets" has been highlighted recently; this came about via news that the world's biggest investment manager, BlackRock, has lost around $90billion over the last 10 years through the underperformance of its holdings in oil, gas and coal companies.

Velocity and direction of change

It is, of course, rather easy to simply criticise a lack of action, or to say that action is too slow or lacking in ambition. Rapid changes in systems do take place but they are often unpredictable and usually give rise to unintended consequences.

So how do we speed up the transition needed?

Action is needed by all players, government, civil society, citizens and companies. Companies need to become corporate activists for a sustainable future. Investors need to start to re-orientate their holdings towards the sustainable technologies which will underpin our sustainable future.

For institutions such as the RSA, engaging in the climate debate and the need for rapid and radical change in policy and behaviour fits with our mission to take a multidisciplinary, innovation driven approach to social and economic change. As noted in the RSA's initiative "The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change", climate change is not just an environmental issue; tackling it requires education, social change, an understanding of human psychology and behaviour as well as changes in legal frameworks and the approach and tone of public discourse.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Embracing and understanding that complexity, as well as recognising and responding to the rising tide of public concern with a rapidly changing climate places the RSA at the heart of building hope and action for a sustainable future.

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  • How do we speed up the transition needed? 

    Great question, Joss.  

    I think there are three problems to be solved: 

    • Getting out of our own thought bubbles. This applies to the whole environmental-progressive movement, not just RSA. How do we engage the unengaged? 

    • Helping people grasp the systemic nature of our challenges. Overall our whole society operates in ways that make climate change worse.   

    • We need to change the operation of our whole society to operate within planetary boundaries. This means choosing to live materially modest lifestyles… and therefore intentionally slowing the economy. 

    So, we are talking about profound systemic change in the way we live. The task of the RSA and other progressive groups is to inspire mainstream commitment to making the changes.  

    Or so I suppose. What do you think? 

    People’s behaviour is based on their mental models. Structured conversations are perhaps our most effective way of helping people think more deeply and comprehensively. 

    I have devised a tool for this: Kitchen Table Conversations. It uses labels on beer coasters to enable people to keep track of conversations about the systemic changes necessary to reduce CO2 emissions. 

    To take it to scale, we have a support platform for citizen educators called the Great Transition Initiative. Our model is to inspire the members of as many groups as possible to act as citizen educators. 

    We have an international cohort of colleagues, including some in the RSA. I would be happy to talk. 


    Andrew Gaines 


  • This is a timely and insightful blog by Joss Tantram and echoes moves being made by other Governments to become net carbon neutral by 2050. For example, the New Zealand Government has recently introduced a Zero Carbon Bill into the House of Representatives to reset New Zealand's GHG emissions targets. But the Bill proposes to weaken compliance mechanisms by limiting judicial review to declaratory relief only and by providing that climate change is merely a permissive consideration in public and private decision making as opposed to being a mandatory consideration. Simply put, these provisions will (if enacted) repeal key findings from the High Court decision in Sarah Thomson v Minister for Climate Change 2017. They also run counter to the Government's international obligations under the Rio Declaration 1992 to public participation (including effective remedies and redress) and common but differentiated responsibilities as an advanced economy in terms of leadership and relationships across the Pacific.

  • Asking whether the change needed to address climate change is fast or far reaching enough is certainly a valid question. Fellows (or prospective Fellows) reaching the RSA website might wonder whether the organisation is indeed engaged on the topic - where are policy/position statements, details of carbon reduction targets, actions on the supply chain etc etc.?  The action to divest fossil fuel holdings is a case in point. I am not opposed to divestment action but there are surely many other options for action that might ultimately lead to the financial system taking fuller account of sustainability.  Of course this wouldn't necessarily mean the RSA would join 'a wider global movement', but perhaps the exploration of potentially uncomfortable and difficult approaches  might better serve the mission to  enrich society (through ideas or action).  

  • Without a plan for delivery the target of net zero emissions by 2050 looks a lot like kicking the can down the road. The actions of the UK government since making that commitment seem to reflect exactly that. They include not only your references to policy on fracking and VAT but the postponement of any consideration of the issues raised by fast fashion for 5 years and the absence of any coherent statement from the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since taking office. 

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