The UK Floods and brutally cold weather in the US is keeping climate change on the agenda. Campaigners are seizing on intensifying public anxiety to pressurise our politicians into supporting change. But it isn't working. As starkly outlined in last year's UN Climate Change 2013 report, "Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850".
Politicians' in-trays are swamped with petitions 'demanding immediate climate action'. Yet that action never happens, or it has no noticeable effect on actual environmental degradation. According to ex-Friends of the Earth boss Tony Juniper we are caught in a "web of interests who stand to benefit, in the short term at least, from carrying on with business as usual". This creates what I call Juniper's web of climate inaction. It involves government, business, and campaigners in a now long established stand-off, of blame and counter blame. Juniper's web is facilitated by a media hungry for opposing parties so they can stoke up 'newsworthy' conflict upon which they depend.
Inaction does not just afflict government. It is pervasive across society. When cardiac patients are told by their doctors they will die if they don't change their lifestyle by eating less and exercising more, only one in seven make changes. Is it any surprise then that we struggle to act on something as complex as the environment? In 2009 Harvard Psychologist Robert Kegan wrote 'Immunity to change'. In his book, Kegan explores how our unconscious mind often stops us doing new things. In particular, a belief that 'we are right' and 'know the answer' can stop the adoption of new ideas and relationships that are often a precondition for change.
Kegan argues that that traditional heroic leaders who are convinced of their moral authority tend to lack the flexibility and open-mindedness necessary to come up with the new solutions needed to tackle issues like climate. In such situations we get locked into the all too familiar political cycle of blame and counter blame, where opposing sides demonise one another, tightening the grip of inaction ever more strongly.
Nowhere is the curse of heroic leadership more obvious to me than in the environmental sector. It is not just in politics and business but perhaps felt most potently in charities and campaigning organisations, whose sense of moral certainty drives a wedge between them and those who do not meet their moral standards.
The social sector's moral authority was once its greatest strength. Now I believe it has become one of its greatest weaknesses. The belligerence that comes from self-righteousness may have got us to the top table in business and government. But now it is what stops us building the new creative relationships and ideas that can embed the systems change we need. This is not a liturgy for CSR-style moral compromise though. Indeed, quite the opposite; it is about holding on as strongly to our principles as ever, whilst simultaneously being 100% open, in both word and deed, to new ideas. It is about being prepared to fundamentally change how we work in search of the bigger prize of environmental protection.
Our failure on climate change validates Einstein's suggestion that we cannot solve our current problems from the same level of consciousness used to create them. We have to transcend our old models of 'them and us' campaigning to develop something more creative. Luckily many in the social sector have been preaching this mantra long before me. Amongst others, people at the Schumacher Institute, Sierra Club, Envision and more recently Year Hear and IDEO.org all powerfully make this case. But it is not enough. Until the big boys like WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth take a hard look at how they lead, and face up to the limits of campaigning as usual, Juniper's Web of climate inaction will remain in place.
Richard Wilson is the director of OSCA and author of Anti Hero.Suggest a correction