Is the apocalyptic language we us in the climate change debate part of the problem?
Sustainable Business

Michael Lenox and Stuart MacDonald discuss the role of language to shape the debate around climate change and sustainable solutions.

Stuart MacDonald (00:10):

Do you feel that the apocalyptic language around the struggles of climate change and what we’re facing paradoxically has the opposite effect where companies and consumers might say, well, what’s the point? I mean, it’s just too late.

Michael Lenox (00:30):

The language that the world’s going to end in 10 years; let’s calm down. It is not going to end in 10 years. I like to say that the Earth’s going to be fine. Let’s not worry about the earth. The question is what is human life on earth is going to be like. I am optimistic that more advanced economies, like the US will be able to weather some of the transitions we’ll have to do, even in a two degree world – sea level rise and how they’ll affect some of our major cities. I imagine we’ll have to abandon some, but we’ll protect others with sea walls and the like. What I get most worried about is the potential social and political disruptions that could occur via climate change. Disruptions of people leading to mass migration, destabilizing governments; it might sound fanciful fanciful to some, but some have argued that was in part what generated the Arab spring, especially in Syria, were droughts that led to lower wheat yield, so led to higher grain prices that led to then a revolution that led to disruption. And then you suddenly see migration throughout Europe. We’re going to the darker part of the discussion here, but these are the things that I worry about when I look forward toward to the world. Those might be a few decades from now. We might have some time before those real negative impacts really start to become evident. The challenge and why the immediacy is so important is if we think about this stock and flow that I was talking about there every minute counts. Even the 2050 goal is presumed on the idea that we would be reducing admissions, basically starting today, moving forward. There’s a real risk that in the next five years, we’ll see significant growth in admissions in which the 2050 date will now be 2040, or even 2035. And that’s why this next decade is absolutely critical. We haven’t discussed the fact that population continues to grow in the world. That’s going to increase demand for things like food and agriculture. That’s going to lead to increase emissions at least in our current world. While we were experiencing some today, the major major impacts aren’t going to be for a few decades. The timing to address is now, and to the point about throwing up our hands and saying, you know, it’s impossible. We’re not going to be able to do this again. I’m not a climate scientist, but I take the climate science seriously. The world is not necessarily linearly impacted by like two degrees to three degrees to four degrees. The potential for nonlinear impacts as you go up to these higher degrees of warming. Some of the pictures that are painted by the climate scientists are fairly scary. We will have to adapt to climate change, but we also have to mitigate the effects. I don’t think we want to accept a world in which we are going to have the significance of warming that the scientists have suggested.

Lenox is the Tayloe Murphy Professor of Business Administration, Senior Associate Dean, and Chief Strategy Officer at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

MacDonald is the Vice President of Product Development at Minneapolis-based 2DegreesCooler™.

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