Is it Time for Climate Change and Sustainability Activists to Rejoin Forces?

This blog post was originally published by Dr. Mark C. Trexler in 2degreesnetwork.com, Oct. 4, 2013.

Students of climate change risk and sustainability advocates have been on seemingly diverging paths for the last decade. Let me clarify why I mean by that:

1) Starting in the early 1990s, climate change activists envisioned a world in which voluntary, enlightened, and self-interested corporate efforts would help change the trajectory of carbon emissions, and thereby help address climate change. Greenhouse gas footprinting and reporting, corporate and product carbon neutrality, and many other voluntary initiatives gained a wide following.

This vision ultimately gave way to the realization that voluntary efforts could not accomplish what was being asked of them in an economic context fundamentally skewed by the fact that carbon emissions aren’t priced. Pursuing climate policy at the local, regional, national, and international levels to change this context has now dominated climate change mitigation efforts for more than a decade.

2) As the prospects for voluntary organized action on climate change receded, the importance of the corporate sustainability industry grew rapidly. Sustainability advocates have argued for years that voluntary, enlightened, and self-interested corporate sustainability efforts, based on Triple Bottom Line and related thinking, and including energy efficiency and zero waste initiatives, could fundamentally change the relationship between the corporate world and the natural environment.

One result has been a seemingly growing divergence between efforts aimed at addressing climate change and efforts aimed at promoting corporate sustainability. Sustainability advocates have increasingly come to characterize efforts to address climate change as just one piece of a much larger sustainability agenda, and not necessarily any more important than other elements of the agenda such as sustainable procurement, environmental justice, or child labor.

Climate change activists have increasingly pushed back, noting that if we can’t address climate change, most of the other elements of the sustainability agenda will fail as well. The simmering conflict between climate change and sustainability concerns has led to recent paper titles like Robin Craig’s: “Climate Change Means the Death of Sustainability,” arguing that incremental progress on sustainability is irrelevant if the entire playing field will be submerged as a result of climate change.

Enter the 2013 UN Global Compact—Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability, which seems to suggest a huge change in how companies view their sustainability efforts. Accenture and the UN Global Compact have collaborated on three such surveys. In the 2010 survey, CEOs anticipated a “new era of market solutions to global challenges.” Just three years later, the 2013 survey takes an entirely different tack:

“There is strong and vocal support among CEOs for governments to play a leading role in shaping the landscape for sustainability at global, national and local levels: 83% of CEOs see an increase in efforts by governments and policymakers to provide an enabling environment for the private sector as integral to advancing sustainability…

“Business leaders believe that only with greater government intervention—at global, national and local levels—can sustainability move from sporadic incremental advances to a collective and transformative impact. . . . The transition toward companies promoting sustainability through the business case promised a new era of market solutions to global challenges, but in the face of limited progress business leaders are beginning to express doubts over the potential for greater scale and speed without active government intervention.”

If an accurate representation of CEO beliefs, this conclusion signals the demise of the sustainability paradigm as it has evolved over the last 10 years which has bombarded us with the notion that “if governments won’t solve the problem, it’s up to business.” We’ve been flooded with inspiring anecdotal stories about how much progress companies are making, how much money they’re saving with energy efficiency, and how strong they see the business case for sustainability.

What the Global Compact CEOs seem to be saying, much as climate change activists before them, is that they increasingly realize that they can’t really influence global outcomes given their current business environment. No matter how much they might try, how much progress they believe they’re making at the company level, and how much money they’re saving from efficiency measures, it’s not going to change the end-game.

This conclusion runs entirely contrary to much of the “sustainability frame” that dominates today. The 2013 CEO Study on Sustainability puts on the table recognition from a large group of CEOs (who are pre-disposed to want to advance the sustainability agenda) that we need public policy to help enable the kinds of sustainability efforts that forward-looking CEOs want to pursue. They sound willing to fight the good fight; but like salmon swimming upstream, at some point you may have to conclude that there’s ultimately no way around the dam of today’s economic and policy infrastructure.

If we can take advantage of this perspective, and combine it with increasingly parallel thinking from the climate change side, we could end up with a more effective policy coalition.

Can the climate change and sustainability communities come together in common cause, and take advantage of this newly opened window of opportunity? If a large of group of influential CEOs is willing to work to advance policy action in a much more aggressive way than in the past, that’s huge!

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