Getting to Climate Action – How can we cut through the noise around climate change?

Manish Jain, Co-Founder of Complexity University 

Climate change has been a topic of discussion in our society for decades, but now that information can now be disseminated with a tap of a screen, the discussion and contradicting opinions around the topic can quickly become overwhelming.

Fifty percent of all historic emissions have occurred since 1992 – when the world came together to form the UNFCCC at the Rio Earth Summit. Climate campaigners and scientists have for years voiced their concerns and issued warnings about approaching tipping points as deadlines for action fly by. Meanwhile, a vocal minority of politicians, scientists and industry leaders denounce the threat of climate change altogether.

With all the noise and contradictory opinions circulating around the issue of climate change, it is hard to understand how to approach the challenge. So where do we truly stand in the fight against climate change – and can anything really be done about it?

Fortunately, the answer is yes. Despite continuing debate climate scientists have long been clear about what needs to happen if we want to avoid climate change. With emissions rising steadily and showing no sign of peaking, the scientific community is now telling us that pathways to limit global warming are getting significantly harder but are still possible. If we hope to stay within the carbon budget, we need a net reduction of emissions of at least 1 billion tonnes (one gigatonne) per year for the next 30 to 50 years. More critically, if emissions don’t peak and decline within the next decade, we will overshoot safe targets, heading for 3 degree terrain, risking the loss of many hundreds of millions of people. In reality we have months and not years.

Presently, the Paris Agreement represents our best strategy to curb emissions and limit global warming. However, the current level of political commitments under the Agreement do not get us to safety. There are a range of obstacles which prevent us from making enough progress to avert catastrophic environmental and ecological damage.

Numerous climate change conventions, conferences and talks are held around the world each year. Unfortunately, the talk is not resulting in enough action to get us to these targets at the pace and scale that science dictates. It seems we know what needs to be done, but struggle when it comes to building and executing an effective approach.

Given that our current efforts are falling short, the need for new strategic responses is now clear. The complexity of a challenge like the climate crisis naturally leads to extended debate and a scattered approach to developing solutions. While it is of course important to engage in thought-provoking discussion to entertain different ways of tackling such complex issues, it is too easy to get sucked into paralysis by analysis.

What we know for sure is that the way we have been doing it so far has not worked. Emissions continue to rise, meaning we have a failure rate of 100% at tackling the climate crisis with our current approach. A classic error continues to be made when attempting to address the climate crisis, as governments, organisations and companies are framing the issue as a simple technical problem of reducing emissions, as opposed to a complex adaptive challenge.

When we come across a challenge or crisis, often our first response is to call a meeting and make a plan. We talk about what we will do, we hire other people to talk with us about what we should do, and we spend time and money we can’t afford planning what we will do. Then we try to do it, and often it fails or certainly does not turn out as our hefty report suggests it will. The worst part comes when we are so invested in this plan that we refuse to acknowledge its shortcomings or failure, and continue to plough resources into an ineffective solution to the problem.

This kind of strategic planning approach arose as a way of tackling  technical challenges, like building roads. It’s a little like throwing a ball, we can predict, the arc it will take and how it will behave.

Contrast this with throwing a live pigeon. We cannot know with any certainty what path the pigeon will take or how it will behave. The path the pigeon follows is emergent. Tackling complex challenges requires a different set of skills to tackling complex challenges.

Our world is becoming increasingly complex. The amount of data we are producing is multiplying at a far greater rate than we can process and understand it. We cannot know everything about a situation or challenge, and as soon as we think we do – it has all changed again. To help us navigate an increasingly complex world, we need  leaders who understand the nature of complex challenges, and recognise that we need to try a different approach than the ones we are familiar with taking.

With this in mind, new organisations such as Complexity University are working to cut through the noise that has built up around challenges like climate change. We are bypassing endless debate about what needs to be done, and taking a hands on, practice-based approach to doing it.

Teams and individuals are increasingly recognising the need to develop an understanding of the nature of complexity and complex challenges, and to practice new approaches that are fit for the purpose of addressing them.

As a strategic response to the climate crisis, we cannot simply focus on individual behaviour change, but more so on collective action. We see the real innovation as being the team, and as a result, it is essential that more teams within companies and organisations are practiced in tackling complex problems, learning to ‘fail fast’, develop dynamic strategies, and successfully execute them.

Complexity University’s approach to helping teams rapidly develop a capacity for tackling complex problems is to bring together teams and put them straight to work on prototyping and delivering emissions reduction interventions in their local area. In a matter of weeks, companies that embark on a Complexity University course are making tangible impact, getting live feedback on their approach and learning how to do better by problem solving on the job, whilst simultaneously receiving valuable guidance and insight from experts with decades of experience in the field of tackling complex challenges like the climate crisis.

By getting employees and team leaders out from behind the desk and into the field, these teams quickly become adept at ‘failing fast’ to reach a more effective solution with minimal resource. They learn to prototype and iterate – testing out multiple responses at pace and processing live feedback from the field. When it comes to taking effective strategic action in the face of a challenge like the climate crisis, developing the capacities  within our teams to navigate complexity is key to success of any initiative – before we even out pen to paper.

Complexity University

Complexity University is a global organisation headquartered between India and the UK, offering complexity leadership courses which help individuals, companies and communities to learn by doing how to tackle complex challenges like climate change. Founded by former CEOs, strategists, researchers, and community organisers from the likes of Harvard, UNESCO, WWF, and Amnesty International, Complexity University is preparing a generation of leaders to tackle the biggest challenges facing humanity head on. Launched last year, Complexity University has run 20+ courses, for over 2,500 participants from 77 countries around the world.

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