It is impossible to say when the next financial crisis will erupt, let alone how long it will last or how damaging it will be. But there is no doubt that the risks the world faces merit a more holistic approach – one that accounts for the serious and escalating threats posed by climate change.
In the decade since the global financial crisis, mechanisms to boost the financial system’s resilience have been widely discussed. But while some progress has been made, the largely piecemeal approach that has been pursued may yet prove inadequate to support long-term financial stability. And a waning bull market means that the day of reckoning may not be far off.
It is impossible to say when the next crisis will erupt, let alone how long it will last or how damaging it will be. But there is no doubt that the risks we face merit a more holistic approach, much like what was called for immediately after the 2008 crisis (though those calls lost steam as markets recovered). This means agreeing on and implementing a new vision for governing the global economy; assessing it rigorously and adjusting it as needed; and ensuring full accountability for every stakeholder.
This vision must comprehend profound and ongoing changes, from increasingly concentrated market power to increasingly automated decision-making. It must also consider China’s rise, which demands that China be incorporated more fully into governance bodies, which will have far-reaching implications, especially as the country emerges as a less benevolent global actor.
Furthermore, this vision must contend with rising nationalism and isolationism, exemplified by US President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach and his trade war with China. And it must recognize that the effectiveness of macroeconomic tools – both monetary and fiscal – is more limited today than in 2008.
Finally, this new vision must reflect a clear decision about the extent to which we are committed to addressing climate and sustainability challenges. Despite the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which changed the paradigm in which we talk about climate change, world leaders have remained reluctant to do what is needed to make a real difference. We cannot continue to deceive ourselves by touting lofty goals while working only at the margins.
If we are serious about building resilience, we need to press ahead with tough systemic changes that address how we produce and consume energy and finance our economies. This will require effective leadership. But, while collaboration among governments has helped drive some climate action, growing fragmentation within the international community has made the limits of this approach clear. A more effective strategy may be to establish a coalition of civil societies and major financial and non-financial institutions to lead progress toward shared goals.
Such progress will demand, among other things, vastly improved accounting and reporting, together with smart regulatory reforms. Moreover, it will require that market participants put in place appropriate incentives and mandates to consider sustainability and climate action in decision-making.
These can – and, in some cases, already do – include adjusted bonus schemes for managers, relevant monitoring requirements, and environmental labeling on consumer packaging. Reputational factors, and even the soft-power influence of local governments, which are increasingly concerned with environmental risk, can also play a role in motivating companies to pursue a green transformation.
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The financial sector, in particular, lacks the right incentives to contribute to addressing the climate challenge, because financial institutions’ decision-making is guided primarily – even exclusively – by monetary profit-seeking. This is short-sighted and untenable. Financial institutions need new incentives to reshape their operations, including their investments. For example, portfolio managers could have their bonuses partly tied to their investments’ performance on climate metrics.
These changes need not undermine economic growth. On the contrary, many climate solutions – such as the shift toward renewable energy – help to generate jobs, and can even increase corporate profitability. In fact, replacing outdated and polluting infrastructure with modern and efficient alternatives represents one of the key investment opportunities of the century.
But this is about much more than profits. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its recent report, the world’s current trajectory is leading to environmental devastation. Already, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. As extreme weather events continue to multiply, large-scale destruction, migration, and conflict will become endemic.
We are at a pivotal moment in history, and we will need to muster the bravery and conviction needed to undertake strong action. We must not only implement solutions, but also test and refine them regularly – not after a decade – guided by clear, evidence-based objectives and measures. Only then can we ensure that not just our financial systems, but all of the structures that underpin global stability are sufficiently resilient.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we are faced with a choice between destruction and the status quo. If we choose the latter, we will have the former.