Political and business leaders are letting us down by raising a false dichotomy between the economy and climate change.
I read that at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the prospect of an economic downturn risked diverting the focus of political and business leaders from climate change and sustainability to the current uncertain economic outlook. This reminds me of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s shift from seeking the “greenest government ever” to being quoted in 2013 as saying “let’s cut out the green crap”.
This is a false dichotomy, reflecting two grave errors that let us all down.
First, the implied priority of “economy first, then the luxury issue of climate”. This is wrong. Economic vigour and safe jobs are not ensured by propping up, for example, the coal industry, which will shrink to a niche (the only question is how quickly).
Instead, give the workers in this industry the chance to retrain to work on, say, photocells or batteries or wind turbines (or other industries with future potential). It’s surely true that not all of them will be able to make such a shift, so support the ones who can’t. Economic change has occurred for hundreds of years, always bringing opportunities, and the economies that seek these opportunities are the ones that benefit.
The hurdle is not that this cannot be done, but that countries short-sightedly have avoided spending the effort to help people make these kinds of necessary shifts in skills, jobs and lifestyles. There are some exceptions today, such as Denmark, but they are too few.
The second error is that leaders do not seem to understand how much is at stake. It is still possible at the moment to pretend that nothing is really changing (who cares about a few extra tropical storms and forest fires!). But this is not about a slight warming, of which a few areas in the Northern Hemisphere might even benefit, but a non-linear process of weather shifts that will at some point become an avalanche.
If desertification and warming of the oceans in vast areas across the world forces billions of people to migrate, there’s the risk of global conflict of the sort we’ve never really seen before. Are we willing to allow this risk to our children?
I am echoing Greta Thunberg here, and deliberately so. Because the reaction of too many business leaders to her climate change argument seems to be: “Yeah, she has kind of a point, but you know, this is really complicated, and you can’t just mess with something as complex as our economy.”
But in dismissing her as a naïve alarmist, as some do, this again misses the point: if we reduce ourselves to tinkering and hoping for technology breakthroughs that like a Deus ex machina allow us to simply carry on, we will not change and will run into the avalanche.
As societies, we need to radically change priorities, backed up by large budgetary and taxation shifts, to create new opportunities. We are desperately holding on to the old, but it is not working very well, so let us take some pain and seek the new. What is missing is courage. Our leaders, particularly our political leaders but also business leaders, are letting us down.
This blog post reflects the private opinions of Christoph Loch rather than the view of Cambridge Judge Business School or the University of Cambridge.