What if world leaders pledged that there would be no major climate conference in 2023 unless certain climate goals are met after this year’s conference? In essence, no COP28 if COP27 promises and pledges go unfulfilled.
It’s no secret that since 1995, when the first COP event was held, annual global CO2 emissions have risen by more than 50%. As Michael Horn and I highlighted in this article in June, even though more than 99% of scientists agree that climate change is serious and that humans are accelerating it, progress to combat it is slow.
The global consensus is that the world–you, me, corporations, governments, NGOs–isn’t doing enough to avert the looming climate disaster.
So, what can we do, especially when—despite all the past pledges and promises—COP events don’t seem to be moving the needle in a significant way.
In his recent column in the New York Times, Bret Stephens describes how his views on climate change have changed over time. A highlight of the piece is that the ultimate solution will not come from governments, but the markets.
I think Mr. Stephens is right.
The United Nations COP event is an annual opportunity for governments to assess how the world is doing on its climate goals and to make new pledges. The focus is often on what governments can do to slow down climate change. Unfortunately, governments may not be the best change agents for our climate problem.
First, many governments are fickle. The U.S. government for instance, signed up to be a part of the Paris Climate Agreement under President Obama’s administration. Under President Trump’s administration, the U.S. pulled out. After Joe Biden got elected, the U.S. rejoined. The U.K. government is little different, and neither is Germany when it comes to making good on pledges to combat the climate crisis.
Second, governments are slow and bureaucratic. Whatever pledges or promises made at COP-type events are non-binding until public officials return to their countries, sell the ideas to their constituents, and ultimately make them into law. In the current vitriolic political climate, it makes solving the abstract issue of climate change incredibly difficult.
Third, the government is reactive to the day-to-day struggles that affect their citizens. And in the U.S. for instance, according to a 2022 Statista survey, just 3% of people listed climate change or the environment as the most important problem facing the country. The top three issues were poor leadership (22%), high cost of living (17%), and the economy in general (12%). As David Callahan, author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” put it, “Until the public sees this [climate change] as a top tier issue, politicians are not going to act.”
The right kind of strategy to combat climate change
Strategy is what organizations do, not what they say. So, no matter what gets said at COP27, if organizations don’t act, change will not happen.
There are primarily two types of strategies—deliberate and emergent.
Deliberate strategies are analytical and top-down. They are often used in projects with properly defined problems, clear solutions, and predictable start and end dates. For example, a project to build a two-lane highway or a power-plant can employ a deliberate strategy because much of the details are known.
For a deliberate strategy to succeed, three conditions must be met. First, the strategy must correctly address all the important details required for success and those responsible for implementing the strategy must understand each detail. Second, the strategy must make sense to everyone implementing it, not just the leaders who design it and espouse its benefits. Third, and perhaps most important especially as it relates to climate change, the strategy can be implemented with little unanticipated influence from outside political, technological, or market forces.
Emergent strategies couldn’t be more different. These strategies tend to dominate when the future is hard to read and when it isn’t quite clear what the right solution is to a complex problem. Inherent in emergent strategies is humility, learning, and changing course over time. For example, most successful innovators employ emergent strategies at the onset because they don’t yet know exactly how to solve their customer’s problems.
Unfortunately, governments are notorious for implementing deliberate strategies when emergent ones are needed. For instance, few issues require a more emergent strategy than climate change, yet much of the conversation at COP events will be grounded in deliberate strategies. And so, more promises and pledges will be made, but little will change.
The market will solve the climate change problem not because the people who manage markets are fundamentally better than those in governments but because markets, by their nature, are emergent. They change. They evolve. They adapt. 90 years ago, a computer was a person. Then it became a big electronic device that filled up a large room. Today, it is a phone that fits in our pockets.
Instead of making more promises at COP27, what if governments and other leaders employed a more emergent strategy. One, start by admitting you don’t know the solution to the climate crisis. Two, stop making pledges and promises that you, often through little fault of yours, won’t keep. And three, lean on the ingenuity of the market’s execution of emergent strategies: if you don’t achieve certain goals, don’t keep meeting to make new ones.
Climate change is too important a problem to be deliberate about it. We must be more emergent.