We have entered a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, or the age defined by human behavior. Scientists have already begun to see signs that the single most pervasive influence on the geological record of our moment will be traceable to human activity. Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate disruption—which the world committed to eliminate in 1992—is ongoing, and getting worse.
Climate disruption results in the slippage of climate patterns to regions that are not accustomed to the resulting conditions. That can make reliable production of food much harder, degrade the integrity of infrastructure, putting intense stress on the everyday lives of people everywhere, and altering the calculus made by all market actors. So, we need clear signals to tell us the story of ongoing climate disruption.
One of the major drivers of our current climate emergency is the wait-and-see attitude adopted by leaders across enterprise, finance, and government, for decades. The idea that we would be best positioned to develop climate risk indicators once climate change was upon us has resulted in serious climate disruption arriving, with too little climate insight moving through the everyday economy.
The seemingly impossible heat dome that brought devastation to the Pacific Northwest of the United States and southwestern Canada is not a natural background anomaly; it is a major shock driven by record high atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases. Our species has never known the planet to have such high levels of heat-trapping compounds in the atmosphere.
Climate emergency has arrived. We are routinely experiencing the effects of unchecked global heating, and across so many areas of human activity, the world is starting to be hot, strange, and scary. Scientists have long warned of compounding climate impacts:
- loss of sea ice reveals dark ocean waters, which absorb far more heat;
- depletion of mountain glaciers makes arid conditions more likely, which make cycles of drought harder to escape from;
- biodiversity loss makes it harder for ecosystems to recover from escalating threats;
- degradation of forests, grasslands, and ocean life, make it harder to counter rising greenhouse gases.
Now, we are in a race against time: the longer we wait to mitigate, the more catastrophic and irreversible the damage will be. We don’t know exactly which financial or economic interest will see their income prospects cut back by precisely what percentage, but we do know we cannot live without food or water. That is where climate signals work needs to begin:
What possibility of wellbeing do you have in a world where most people can no longer afford food or fresh water?
From there, we can ask more specific questions:
- Could you operate if your activities were uninsurable?
- What if cost of capital rose by 30%? Or by 30% per year for 5 years?
- Would subsidies you rely on be available if trillion-dollar shocks happen more than once per decade?
- How will markets react—or governments or consumers—when they see you are invested in activities that add cost and risk to everything else they do?
The quickest, easiest answer to these big, complex questions is: Wait-and-see is no longer a viable posture. It is evidently more cost-effective to invest in activities that reduce risk and generate macrocritical resilience. Macrocritical resilience means there is leverage “out there”, beyond your business activities, which you will be able to count on to make things safer and more conducive to sustainable, shared prosperity.
Macrocritical resilience is infrastructure in a climate-disrupted world.
Businesses need to know, and be able to report accurately, how their activities affect the wider world. They need to understand both positive externalities and negative externalities. This will be critical for enhancing the benefits they can provide to society, and to Nature, and for reducing the harm they ask others to absorb. It will also become a precondition for major subsidy support and for start-up and development finance, as the value of such sustainable business models is better understood (and signaled) by markets.
Financial institutions and businesses committing to Science-Based Targets and joining the Race to Zero and the Race to Resilience—including the more than $70 trillion in assets under management joining the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero—are setting new parameters for long-term market viability. “Science-based” means action must be substantial enough, early enough, to make it possible to limit global heating to no more than 1.5ºC. So speed will be critical.
Competitiveness is being redefined, even if some of the old guard wish it were not.
To paraphrase one climate-minded corporate leader: Just get started; stop delaying. The metrics may not yet be perfect; you may not yet know what signals are most important to follow, or how to single them out from the noise, but you will learn as you go. We must all learn as we go, because planetary systems have never been in these conditions before. We need to act fast; new standards are already emerging, so if you want to future-proof your business, just get started.