- As the world looks for a united response to climate change, it's important for greening policies and initiatives to not leave any critical voices out of the conversation.
- To adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to discern between urgent interventions and systems-shifting behaviour.
- To exact profound change, we must recognize and understand rooted inequities, while contextualizing the risks and rewards of each solution for individual communities.
Climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s most vulnerable people. To address this, we need a justice-oriented worldview that places empowerment, protection and equity at the forefront. Other indicators, too, show how much needs to be done to build this justice-oriented worldview. The loss of cultural wisdom as ecological knowledge, increased desertification, and the sinking of low-lying islands, all point to the necessity for a rethink of our global priorities.
Businesses increasingly see climate change as a central risk to their operations. Mark Versey, CEO of Aviva Investors, lists climate change and biodiversity loss in his annual letter as the top stewardship priorities for institutional investors, wealth managers, and shareholders. Climate concerns also rank highest in the high-level-of-risk-response blind spots, according to research by the World Economic Forum.
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To adequately respond to climate challenges, we need to ask ourselves how we can ensure the response is just for all people and in the best interest of the planet. To do so, we have to ask ourselves a few questions:
Whose voices are missing?
The climate crisis adversely affects minority groups and one's gender, disabilities, and religion can exacerbate the experience. These groups, who often find themselves pushed to the side, must have their voices included in decisions regarding new initiatives and solutions to tackle climate change.
In particular, Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Colour (BIPOC) are missing from greening initiatives and conversations. For example, Indigenous Peoples constitute less than 5% of the world’s population but safeguard over 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Even so, BIPOC face environmental racism both in extractive industry activities and in policies and solutions to combat the climate crisis.
Effectively employing these principles leads to better co-governance and good governance. An example of moving towards co-governance was seen through the conservation of the Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The National Heritage Conservation Commission consulted with Indigenous peoples, engaged in cultural mapping exercises and incorporated traditional knowledge into managing strategies.
An example of good governance, in turn, is Māori representation and governance on Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera boards. Here, each board has equal representation of Māori and non-Māori, with Māori representation set to increase over time.
BIPOC have lived for time immemorial in harmony with their environment and aren't interested in having their connection to nature torn away. As humans, we are a part of nature, and those who best grasp this have to be included in a meaningful way to combat the climate crisis.
What are we changing?
Significant problems require transformative, systems-led change. In the context of climate action, decision-makers and policy-creators seek predictable, controllable solutions to address unpredictable, evolving systems.
The clock vs cloud (or complicated versus complex) distinction is a helpful analogy to illustrate this tension. Policy solutions and strategies are often framed in quantifiable and controllable units (such as time captured in a clock) whilst the reality is shifting, changing and interacting (such as the cloud):
Systems change is essentially a “cloud problem” in a world built for “clock solutions”. These two types of problems require two fundamentally different approaches:
Instead of seeing systems-shifting solutions as binary, there are distinct types of problems and interventions to consider, from the spectrum of clock to cloud:
Before engaging in climate work, it is worth understanding the scale and appetite for desired change and the short- to long-term interventions required to shift the system.
Is there underlying inequality to the problem?
Climate justice requires an understanding that the adverse impacts of climate change are not felt equitably. Historical inequalities compound the impacts. Here, there are two perspectives that grapple with understanding rooted inequities.
Firstly, remembering and acknowledging the intersectional history of the problem. Intersectionality recognises that every individual has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression. So, climate solutions should consider everything that marginalises people, including race, sexuality, physical ability, gender, and class.
Research has found that decarbonising cities with green technology doesn't automatically tackle gender, disability and social equity issues. Cities must actively work to ensure equity and accessibility as part of city planning.
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Secondly, addressing inequality requires transforming our human relationship with our planet. Here, we must recognise that improving sustainability performance alone, is insufficient. Emerge Institute’s Iceberg Model of Change is an example that combines both elements of systems change and internal transformational change. It states that we need to:
● Understand the symptoms of an extractive and disconnected world, including the adverse impacts of climate change;
● See the paradigms of the world enabling the system; and
● Unravel the intergenerational, personal and hidden trauma within societies.
By understanding the history and underlying inequalities of communities, we can generate contextually relevant and community-sensitive analyses of root causes. This allows for deeper, regenerative climate action to the benefit of all.
Innovation is critical, but what are its limits?
Experts at the vanguard of the climate crisis are advocating in favour of groundbreaking technological innovation in clean energy and low-carbon technologies. In pursuit of these inventions, we must reflect on their practicalities, risks and usefulness. Two key considerations can help us determine where our efforts should be directed.
Firstly, new solutions contain risks that may be managed by highly resilient and well-resourced communities but devastate vulnerable ones. These risks must be carefully thought through and anticipated. In its Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation, the World Humanitarian Summit highlights the need to balance innovation with risk-taking. This is contextualized within the principle of 'do no harm'.
Secondly, the simplest and most effective solutions may be overlooked and underfunded in favour of what’s new and tech-centric. Technologies such as plant-based plastics and circular economy services have been commercially available for decades, but their adoption is slow. Here, innovation isn't necessarily the solution. A constant emphasis on more innovation swivels past root problems and right into the trap of technological solutionism.
Tech-centric innovation may pave the way to a more climate-friendly future, but, according to the EIT Climate-KIC model for systems innovation, we must learn how to weave technological advances into the fabric of society, without forgetting cultural innovations.
Google’s 2021 Year in Search data shows that searches for “impacts of climate change” and “missing Indigenous women” has risen sharply. The world needs guidance and solutions for the way forward. We should build a future based on just solutions that work not just for some communities, but for all.