The Climate Emergency in the time of a pandemic: What you can do about it

by Nicky Dunlop



The global pandemic has exposed major cracks in our institutional systems. It has been bigger and more disastrous than anyone could have comprehended earlier this year. With our minds focused on our immediate needs and the effect it has on our security, health, and futures, it is another mental battle to wonder how we can tackle another impending crisis: the climate emergency.


Many are understandably focused on getting back ‘to normal’ (admittedly, often myself included) but as the economist Mariana Mazzucato emphasises, going back to ‘normal’ “is problematic when the ‘normal’ we want to get back to [...] got us where we are.”


With blazing wildfires and global floods and cyclones this year, there is no doubt of the scale and urgency of the crisis. By transitioning to a net-zero carbon economy and addressing the climate emergency, we are not only working towards staying within 1.5C of global warming to mitigate the global repercussions, but our increased respect towards the natural world will help reduce the likelihood of future pandemics and build our long-term resilience. Who doesn’t want to build back better?


It is essential that governments focus on implementing policies towards this transition. There has been increased focus on greener jobs, cleaner energy and investing in greener technology (although there was a missed opportunity to apply bailouts with net-zero conditions attached).


We have also seen with Covid-19 how quickly the government can take action when necessary. In the case of climate action however, the consequences have been known for decades and the dial is yet to fully turn. Let’s remember that Greta Thunberg has been striking for over two years imploring governments to take this crisis seriously and David Attenborough is back on our screens (and Instagram feeds) to urge us all to listen and address this crisis; “one that has consequences for us all.”


Governments may not always be able (or willing) to move as quickly as we would like, but a combined effort, persistence and pressure from individuals, businesses and communities will certainly keep it on the agenda and work to build a future we want to be part of. Pulling together as we have seen over these last months certainly brought hope in a time of catastrophe.


For businesses with many urgent priorities, it can feel like an agenda point to save until this ‘is over.’ As Jesper Brodin, Chief Executive of Ingka Group (IKEA) puts it: “I am aware that this is a huge ask on leaders who are already overstretched. But Covid-19 and the reaction to it have illustrated the importance of interconnectedness and urgent global cooperation.” These global crises need “exceptional leadership to shift old systems into new ones.”


Earlier this year, ActionAble and On Purpose joined together with the activist movement, Business Declares, for an online event “The Climate Emergency: From Declarations to Action” to inspire, support and guide more businesses to to make this shift by sharing how to declare a climate emergency and to show what it looks like in practice, especially in light of Covid-19.


As Fiona Ellis, Director of Business Declares says: “these challenging times have highlighted the imperative for businesses to implement solutions to the health, climate and ecological emergencies, which result in greater economic inclusivity and public engagement.”

 

So, what does it take for businesses to declare a climate emergency and what does it look like in practice?


Business Declares headlines these ongoing actions as:

  • Taking tangible steps towards the net-zero commitment;

  • Creating a detailed ‘Climate Emergency’ plan with specific milestones;

  • Advocating for change at a wider level;

  • Sharing knowledge and best practices.


Aside from these practical steps (for which you can find more details on Business Declares’ website here), key personal attributes are needed to successfully declare an emergency in your company and move into action. It’s more than just going through the motions, it's about authenticity, proactiveness, engagement, influence, careful use of language and mindset.


Here are three key points to remember:


1. Make it real for people (get them to feel)


The first big hurdle of making a declaration is convincing different parties; the board, suppliers, clients and employees. Ben Tolhurst, from the global real estate company JLL, approached this challenge by sharing a blog with 1300 UK employees about how he radically changed his lifestyle to become more climate-friendly. His message clearly resonated as it resulted in the creation of a global group to address what could be done across JLL.


Often people switch off or downplay the severity of climate change to avoid feeling guilty, powerless or sad. Ben couldn’t rely solely on scientific logic to convince board members to change their strategy, he appealed to their emotion by authentically articulating his desire for a better future for his daughter. As Oliver Payne puts it: “climate change isn’t affecting ‘me, it’s not here, it’s not now and it isn’t clear.’” You need to overcome this psychological distance and bring it closer to home.


2. Focus on tangible, concrete actions (that people know how to do)


Steps to move from theory to practice are often missing in governmental level discussions on climate change: What will it actually look like? What are the concrete steps to get there?


When bringing in different stakeholders, you may get agreement but lack action. Vineeta Greenwood from Wholegrain Digital used concrete, specific calls to action for the board, suppliers, clients and employees to hold onto straight away. The Science of What Makes People Care backs this up: “Effective calls to action follow three rules: They are specific; the target community sees how the solution will help solve the problem; and they are something the community knows how to do.”


Vineeta gave examples of successful actions they rolled out, including:

  • Incentivising team members to switch to renewable energy (they are now 100% renewable at the office and at home!);

  • Emphasising the green benefits of smaller, faster websites to clients;

  • Decarbonising pension funds;

  • City cycling;

  • Vegetarian food coupons (and many more)!


3. There’s always something more you can do (and it’s better collectively)


Declaring a climate emergency isn’t the end of the road, it’s about continually being proactive, intentional and ambitious and not stopping even when you reach your goal. Ongoing action that inspires others is needed to build collective action.


It can seem an insurmountable task to take on our own, however things are rarely changed by one person or one business. Finding allies is key both internally and externally, which is why Business Declares and others are building networks of like-minded, environmentally focused organisations to be a collective force across sectors to stand for change.

 

What can you do?


If you’re asking yourself whether you’re the right person to speak up in your organisation, remember that unprecedented situations require all of us to take actions. As Otto Scharmer writes, “if the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we — each of us, separately and together — can change the system.” No matter your role, now is the time to start the conversation.


  • Find your allies;

  • Make it real for others, authentically;

  • Create concrete steps for immediate action.


Individuals, businesses and communities can be a force to drive governmental changes, just as the government can drive change in businesses by bringing in reforms to create a more sustainable, resilient economy and society. Like a feedback loop, pushing and pulling, we need both to move this environmental agenda from hypothetical into actual, from vision to reality. From 2050, to 2025. Now’s the time to act. Are you in?


For more information and how to join the Business Declares network, visit their website here (including the steps to “Declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency” and more about JLL’s and Wholegrain Digital’s experience on their case study page)

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