During his closing address at the BSR Conference 2014, scientist and comedian Bill Nye captured a message that prevailed throughout our event’s climate change track: “We’re at a tipping point; the world is fed up,” he said, emphasizing that now is time for climate action. As BSR’s Edward Cameron put it in the session “Building Climate Action Step by Step”: It is time for the volume of action to meet the volume of ambition needed to fill the emissions gap for stability around a 2°C world.
What follows are some other themes that arose during the sessions and addresses that touched on climate change.
“Good Enough” Is Not Good Enough
When it comes to global climate action, there are many examples of individual actions, but this has not amounted to large-scale success. According to Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, however, this may not be a bad thing. Zuckerman built the case that “good enough" solutions to big problem are often harder to fix than complete failures. That’s because “failures” prompt society to drive innovation and effective solutions.
Communicating Climate Requires Constant Innovation
During a discussion about authentic leadership, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker noted that stories are often more powerful than hard data, and when told by CEOs and other leaders, these stories can be even more powerful.
Nye elaborated on the climate data problem when he noted that, despite the scientific evidence, society has questioned the reality of human-caused climate change. Nye—who called climate denial “unconstitutional” because article 1, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution states the need to provide for progress of science—said common sense is not all that common. The reason, said Andrew Revkin, a long-time climate reporter for the New York Times, is that our brains may be hard-wired to reject the seemingly far off threats posed by climate change.
Effective climate communications focus on threats happening now, and they put a human face on climate impacts. During his plenary conversation with Cameron, Years of Living Dangerously Executive Producer David Gelber called climate change a story worth devoting the rest of his career to. In the show, he uses the faces and stories of real people (including a few celebrities), to engage the public in a way that resonates with a variety of audiences based on their backgrounds and personal experiences.
Climate Requires Long-Term Investments
Many speakers noted that today’s corporate emphasis on short-term profits is not conducive for addressing big sustainability challenges like climate change. H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson said his company, which was founded by his grandfather, views sustainability as an investment to ensure the company survives over the long term. PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi emphasized that long-term thinking would be part of what she called “the next chapter of capitalism.”
The panel “Learning from Extreme Weather Events” expanded on this and presented case studies demonstrating that long-term investments—specifically to increase resilience through emissions mitigation and adaptive capacity—are more cost-effective than responding to future challenges presented in a much more climate-constrained world. The shipping company Maersk, for instance, has decoupled growth from its emissions trajectory by setting a goal to increase the volume of goods transported by 80 percent by 2020, while reducing emissions by 40 percent from a 2007 baseline.
Climate Solutions Must Account for Whole Systems
In the session “Building Climate Action Step by Step,” John Church, General Mill’s executive vice president of supply chain, told the story of how his company’s actions on issues including water, waste, and energy collectively translate to action on climate change.
Given the scale of the climate challenge, a single, perfect solution is unlikely. A multilayered, systemwide approach that starts now and builds on individual actions is essential. BSR has adopted this approach to its work with companies by applying Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala’s climate wedges approach to different industry sectors: In this way, multiple actions are combined to make a bigger, collective impact.
Many company representatives at the Conference emphasized the role of collaboration in making actions more effective. In a session on climate change and human rights, the panelists discussed the role that business can play to facilitate this systems approach by giving people in their markets, operations, and supply chains a voice and the power to act on climate change.
In his conclusion, Nye used humor to remind us why we need to act on climate change: “The Earth is going to be here no matter what we do. I want to save the earth for me, for humans.”
Read more about BSR’s Business in a Climate-Constrained World program.