What's Next: Building Climate-Positive Organizations
How will climate change
change what you *and your organization* do?
As we begin rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 promises a new landscape for tackling urgent futures. Chief among these is the climate crisis.
The climate crisis will be perhaps the most important defining force of the next several decades—and the decisions we make in the 2020s will be critical to mitigating some of the darkest scenarios. Over the coming decades, we will face a world transformed by climate change.
The big question is: Can we act now to mitigate some of the worst scenarios and guide this transformation to a future we want?
Doing this requires an understanding that climate change operates at a scale and speed that transcends anything we've ever experienced. It will demand that we simultaneously build for a longer time horizon than most of us operate on while also acting as soon as possible to begin the process of adapting.
This year, IFTF Vantage is focusing on the role of organizations in navigating the climate crisis by asking:
What is the climate positive organization? And what will organizations need to do to reinvent themselves as climate positive organizations for the next decade and beyond?
On Feb 10-11, 2021, IFTF Vantage hosted an open conversation to begin exploring what organizations can do now to position themselves as climate positive organizations in the coming decade and beyond. The event was livestreamed (recorded sessions available exclusively to partners).
Leon Trotsky observed that “old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a [hu]man.” One could say the same about climate change. For more than a century, we’ve known that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to a rise in the global mean temperature. But here we are in 2021 wondering, “how did this happen?” It has taken a decade of wildfires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other destructive weather events to drive home the fact that climate change is real and that the future will present us with several impossible-to-ignore grand challenges.
On February 10-11, 2021, IFTF Vantage hosted a two-day online conference called “Building Climate-Positive Organizations.” As IFTF Vantage director of research Brad Kreit said in the opening presentation, a climate-positive organization is one that “works aggressively to cut emissions as quickly as possible by becoming carbon neutral” and “goes beyond mitigating their impact on the climate to contribute positively to the environmental systems that we depend on.”
To achieve these two goals, organizations must focus on four areas: technology, economic transformation, behavior, and governance. Brad acknowledged this isn’t going to be easy, but ignoring the problem is no longer an option. In fact, we’ve kicked the can down the road so many times in the past that “if we could flip a switch and stop all carbon emissions right now, we would still have a couple of decades of worsening conditions in our future.”
Where Are We Trying to Go? Possibilities for 2050
With that sobering fact in mind, Brad introduced IFTF distinguished fellow Jamais Cascio, who stressed that traditional forms of crisis response won’t be enough to “give us a 2050 worth living.” Organizations must go beyond “flexible thinking,” which implies bending, and instead practice “polymorphic thinking,” which means reshaping as a way to adapt to “new forces when they arise.”
“Polymorphic thinking asks us to re-examine our assumptions whenever we learn something new,” said Jamais, “to connect new information and insights into our philosophies, not to eliminate the old but to offer a different perspective, to provide a safe platform for experiments with emerging ideas, to embrace evolution, but be ready for revolution.”
Technology Catalysts for a Climate Positive Future
After his presentation, Jamais was joined by author and clean energy investor Ramez Naam for a panel titled “Technology Catalysts for a Climate Positive Future,” moderated by IFTF research director Rachel Maguire. Ramez provided a critical data point to frame the discussion. He said there are four primary sources of carbon emissions, all roughly equal: electricity, transport, heat & industry, and agriculture & land use. We’ve made the most progress with curbing emissions caused by electricity generation (solar and wind energy are now competitive with fossil fuels). We are on track with ground transportation (with the introduction of electric vehicles). Industry, responsible for 22% of global emissions, is more challenging. Efforts to reduce carbon footprints for steel, cement, glass, and high-temperature industrial processes have a long way to go. The problem is, companies working on carbon-neutral processes for concrete and steel “don’t look like an Airbnb or Google.” They don’t have online companies’ “high margins, network effects, and virtuous cycle platforms.”
An even more significant challenge, said Ramez, is developing and deploying massive machinery to capture carbon because it doesn’t make money. “It’s always going to cost you something to do carbon capture. Who’s going to pay for it? Are governments going to pay for it, are consumers going to pay for it? That missing business model piece, I think, is really hard.”
Collective Challenges & Response Strategies in a Climate-Disrupted World
The day ended with a discussion between IFTF Governance Futures Lab director Jake Dunagan and Climate Interactive co-director Beth Sawin, who shared her thoughts on converging crises and multi-solution approaches. Beth kicked off the discussion with a grim fact: In 2018, nearly nine million deaths were linked to air pollution from fossil fuels. “This is mind-boggling to me,” she said. “One in five deaths worldwide are linked to air pollution from fossil fuels.”
Converging crises have made the situation worse. Fossil fuels are changing the climate, and the climate is connected with COVID-19 in ways that exacerbate the health crisis. “A small increase in long-term exposure to particulates that come from fossil fuels increases a person’s risk of dying if they’re suffering from COVID-19,” she said.
And then there’s race, gender, and economic inequity, all of which compound the problem. Current approaches to mitigating disasters often backfire. Beth mentioned a study that found “the worse the disaster, and the more that the Federal Emergency Management Agency poured money in after the disaster, the worse wealth inequality was afterward.” Sawin advocates a different approach: multi-solving. “If you can solve air pollution and climate change, you get immediate benefits from less air pollution, better health, long term, more stable climate…. So the name of the game here is for one effort, how many benefits can you weave in together?” she said. “It’s the opposite of converging crises.”
Beth closed the session with the hopeful example of the Baltimore Orchard Project. “They mobilize communities to plant edible trees that produce edible fruits and gardens that produce vegetables. They’re reducing the urban heat island effect, they’re probably also helping with urban stormwater runoff. And if they’re cooling the city, they’re reducing fossil fuel use for cooling buildings. So they’re having a long-term climate impact and they’re increasing food security.”
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
While the term “climate feminism” may be relatively new, the connection between environmental and gender equality activism is not. In fact, as author, strategist and activist Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson explained on the morning of day 2, this connection goes back to the 1800s, when scientist and suffragette Eunice Newton Foote put forth the first theory of climate change.
“It seems [that she] was perhaps the first climate feminist,” Katharine explained. Today still, women and girls doing pioneering work on climate change are given unequal and insufficient credit and funding.
“This is a problem of fairness, but it is also a problem of efficacy,” Katharine asserted. “Suppressing the participation of fully half the world's brainpower and change-making capacity simply sets us up for failure ... women and girls are making enormous contributions to the work of healing our planet, but they remain underrepresented at virtually every decision-making table that has relevance to our planetary future.”
She went on to share four qualities of transformational leadership more common to women but “wide open to people of any gender.” They include: a focus on “making change, not being in charge,” “responding to the climate crisis in ways that heal systemic injustices rather than deepening them,” “embracing heart-centered and not just head-centered approaches,” and “recognizing that building community is the foundation to building a better world.”
After her remarks, Katharine was joined by IFTF distinguished fellow Lyn Jeffery for a conversation about what it means to be a climate-positive organization and, in general, what role large organizations can and should play in addressing the crisis.
Katharine reinforced the idea of pursuing transformation, not moderation. In particular, she made the case that organizations have to move beyond just trying to lower their own footprint and instead cooperate with other organizations to change the overall regulatory and business environment. She also noted that large organizations have a large voice and lots of influence, which they could lend to climate feminists and other activists if they choose to.
Accelerating Climate Positive Tipping Points with Behavioral Transformation
The conversation then turned to behavior change. In their conversation, IFTF research director Vanessa Mason and University of Helskini postdoctoral researcher Roope Oskari Kaaronen, whose work models how people adopt sustainable behaviors, discussed tipping points that make climate-positive actions mainstream and ways organizations can reach them.
Because research suggests complex behaviors do spread through tight-knit social networks, Roope argued that organizations can scale climate-positive behaviors among their staff by creating space for internal social networks to form and incubate, so that they become vehicles for contagious positive behavior change.
Vanessa and Roope also discussed how organizations can engage with climate activists and “give them a microphone” as a way to affect change outside the organization’s boundaries. But while changing hearts and minds is certainly part of the battle, climate positive-attitudes don’t always translate to climate-positive behavior. So for getting employees to adopt a more climate-positive lifestyle, Roope believes a key leverage point is designing physical environments to make sustainable behaviors as effortless and appealing as possible.
Climate Positive Economy: The Economy of Ecology
2020 saw the lowest carbon emissions in a century, potentially putting us back on track to meet commitments to the Paris Accord. All we had to do to achieve this was grind the global economy to a halt.
In the last session of the event, Project Drawdown fellow Kevin Bayuk noted this fact, describing it as “powerful provocation.” His organization is famous for their groundbreaking global analysis, published in 2017, and updated in 2020 that catalogues existing technologies, practices and strategies that already have at least 1% adoption within their addressable market that could draw down carbon emissions to a level that, if widely adopted, would get us to Paris Climate Accord targets—”without destroying the economy.”
In the conversation, IFTF research manager Georgia Gillian and Kevin explored the possibilities for a climate positive economy. They discussed carbon offsets as a viable interim solution—on the condition they “have a strong social justice and repair component” and evaluated the potential for consumer demand to drive sustainability.
Kevin also provided a tour of technologies that exist today that point to more transformative change. “Real-life, non-science fiction examples” he called them, “that bend our imagination about what's possible.” For instance, houses and clothing that actually sequester carbon.
“These solutions are absolutely feasible within the world of material,” Kevin asserted. “There's nothing that's physically impossible about addressing all this.”
This call to imagine a plausible, and radically better climate future was as fitting an end to two days of discussion that were by turns sobering, terrifying, fascinating, fun, and inspirational.
This work is ongoing ...
Our research synthesis will be shared exclusively with IFTF Vantage partners at our interactive launch event on May 17-18.
Interested in learning about all the benefits of becoming an IFTF Vantage partner? Sign up now and join us for a 30-minute intro to IFTF Vantage and demo of our exclusive futures platforms on March 10th at 9:00am PST!
Institute for the Future is the world’s leading futures organization. Its signature program, IFTF Vantage, is a unique partnership of innovative global leaders that harnesses over 50 years of IFTF global forecasts and pioneering research to navigate volatility, identify emerging imperatives and opportunities, and develop world-ready strategies. IFTF Vantage partners represent businesses, governments, and social impact organizations from around the world that require the most comprehensive view of future forces directly affecting their organizations. IFTF Vantage generates organizational readiness for a world in flux.