A New President is Not Enough to Fight the Climate Crisis. We Need a New Theory of Change.

Image credit: Marcia Cirrilo

This week’s elections are nerve-wracking for everyone, but it seems to be especially difficult, not to say devastating to those of us who had high hopes for a new course of action on climate change. The anticipation was that President Biden, with the help of a Democratic-led Congress (and a push from its progressive wing of the party), will help overcome four years of destruction and move forward quickly and swiftly to advance a bold climate agenda.

Now that the Republican party seems to keep its hold of the Senate (pending two runoff Senate elections in Georgia in January), this plan seems to be far less likely, which gets many people, myself included, to wonder what sort of progress will we have in the next four years — incremental or exponential? While we need the latter, the political map suggests we’ll end up with the former (I assume this will be true even if Democrats will win the two seats in Georgia — you still have centrist Democrats in the Senate like Sinema and Manchin who will not support progressive agenda).

So, what do we do about it? Is there any way to win the climate fight even with such a messy political landscape, beyond just relying on what the President can do on his own? I believe the answer is YES, but to do so we need to start by considering expanding our theory of change. Let me explain.

These are the key working assumptions underlying many of the efforts to address the climate crisis:

1) We need structural shifts to make change happen at the scale and speed necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

2) We need to move fast. Very fast. As Bill McKibben puts it: “Winning slowly is the same as losing”.

3) Regulation is a very effective way to achieve structural changes at scale and in a relatively short time, especially given that many of these changes include infrastructural changes.

4) We need to elect politicians that support bold climate policies to have in place bold climate legislation.

5) The new regulations will support and be supported by other change drivers (activism, education, innovation), which will result in new waves of climate solutions that will help move us in the right direction.

It’s not too difficult to identify that the weakest link in this ‘theory of change’ is the fourth assumption. Without politicians supporting bold climate policies you won’t have these policies in place and without these policies in place you can forget about achieving any sort of meaningful change. This is exactly what we will have now — even with only 50 Republican senators (i.e. the best case scenario), you can just forget about it.

The problem, however, is greater than Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators, and perhaps has to do more with the theory of change. After all, it seems to fail not only in the U.S. but also in Brazil, Australia, Poland, and other parts of the globe where those in power either deny climate change or don’t believe it’s such a high priority. And yet, this seems to be the best theory of change we have for now.

Even activists protesting in the streets and against the inaction and indifference of politicians have a similar theory of change in mind, only with the addition of an important assumption — the 3.5% rule. This rule is based on the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, who found “that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change” (bbc.com). Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement adopted this notion of a certain threshold of people actively engaging in non-violent activities that are needed to transform the political system. While climate activism had a critical impact on changing the discourse on climate change worldwide and also contributed to the election of Joe Biden, it still does not seem to be enough to make this overall theory of change work everywhere every time, which is what we need.

I believe we have now two options:

1. Work harder to improve the current theory of change

Some may conclude, based on the election results that we need to work harder to win the votes necessary to get progressive climate policies approved and implemented. Some scientists, for example, suggested that “they must work harder to communicate the importance of facts, science and truth”. I agree with climate journalist Emily Atkin, who wrote that ““facts and science are important” is not an effective message on its own”. However, I am not sure I fully concur with her suggestion that for voters to take the climate issue more seriously “the information campaign must be more powerful than the disinformation campaign — and it must tackle the disinformation campaign directly.”

My sense is that the climate war is a culture war, not just an information war. As Andrew Hoffman points out in his book “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate“: “ Social scientists view the public understanding of climate change not as a lack of adequate information but as the intentional or unintentional avoidance of that information. That avoidance is rooted in our culture and psychology..”. We need to acknowledge first that right-wing populism has been opposing climate policies as it perceives climate change to be part of a cosmopolitan issue that is part of a liberal agenda (see here and here). To change this mindset we need to figure out how to connect right-wing populism with the fight against fossil fuel companies and other corporate interests working against progress on climate. I believe this is doable but it will take quite some time to do it at scale, and going back to assumption #2, we don’t have much time. Therefore, I believe that while we should pursue this option, we also need to work on pursuing alternative theories of change at the same time.

2. Focus on companies, not (just) politicians

Consider these people: Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Fink (BlackRock), Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Doug McMillion (Walmart). All of them are powerful CEOs of large corporations. They are also very wealthy, which in the case of Bezos is an understatement as his net worth is estimated to be around $200 billion. However, what is perhaps most important is that as the leaders of some of the largest economic entities in the world they are in a position to make a great difference on climate change. Now, the interesting part is that while they do not take advantage of this position (some of them are doing something, but very little compared to what they can do about the climate crisis), changing their mindset may be easier than flipping the senate and hoping that the Supreme court will not oppose any major climate change policy coming out of the Biden administration.

Last year Bill McKibben suggested considering the power of money as a powerful lever in addition to regulation: “But what if there were an additional lever to pull, one that could work both quickly and globally? One possibility relies on the idea that political leaders are not the only powerful actors on the planet — that those who hold most of the money also have enormous power, and that their power could be exercised in a matter of months or even hours, not years or decades. I suspect that the key to disrupting the flow of carbon into the atmosphere may lie in disrupting the flow of money to coal and oil and gas.”

I want to build on McKibben’s point and suggest that not too many powerful companies have a huge impact on the climate crisis, from fossil fuel companies (and the banks funding them) to companies contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon. If we can get these companies and people leading them to fully commit and execute a progressive climate agenda we can fight climate change pretty effectively no matter who controls the Senate or how many conservative judges are on the Supreme court.

This is not to say that we don’t need strong policies. It is to say, as McKibben suggested, that we need other powerful levers to work as well. We can’t put all of our climate eggs in one basket and hope for the best, especially given that governments do not have such a great record on climate, even when they are committed to fighting it. What we need is a second theory of change where we are focused on flipping JPMorgan and Walmart, not just North Carolina and Georgia. If this claim may sound far-fetched, just consider the progress corporations have made on climate change in the last four years, even in a hostile political environment for the most part. Companies certainly do not do enough, but they have proved that they are capable of making changes if they have to. Now, we just need to make sure they do it.

I know this suggestion may sound familiar and you may feel a déjà vu — we had already a similar realization not too ago when we were hoping that companies, cities, and states can fill in the vacuum created by the lack of action of the Trump Administration (and more specifically its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which formally happened this week). This may also remind you of the narrative of corporate social responsibility (CSR), where companies are asked to reconsider their strategy and practices in terms of their environmental and social impacts.

This, however, is not the case. A CSR mindset (I call it sustainability-as-usual) is not very useful to fighting climate change effectively as it is grounded in shareholder capitalism (even if it is packaged now as stakeholder capitalism). If we want to use companies as a lever, we need to move beyond this framing and create a new one, which is not about regulation or CSR, but society holding companies accountable in demand of action aligned with 1.5C targets.

We need to start experimenting with this theory of change and the sooner the better. Just consider what if all the great energy of Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and many other climate movements will be focused on specific companies and their leaders. About 1,500 Amazon employees demonstrating and demanding the company to take more action on climate change helped shift Bezos’ (and the company) approach from having very little interest in this issue to claim that “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet” and personally commit $10 billion to address it. What will happen when it will be hundreds of thousands demonstrating in front of Amazon every Friday? What will Jamie Dimon do if the Sunrise movement will apply its change tactics on JPMorgan? What will Doug McMillon do if Extinction Rebellion will focus its efforts on Walmart? and so on.

Don’t get me wrong. This theory of change is not just about demonstrations and shaming corporate leaders. At its core, it is about changing the environment in which companies operate to ensure that any corporate activity that is not aligned with the 1.5C target becomes unacceptable. It is about changing the mental model dominating the business world, with a focus on social norms.

Leslie Crutchfield writes in her book “How Change Happens”: “ Great social change leaders refuse to choose between either pushing for policy reform or shifting social norms and individual behaviors. They realize that to achieve lasting systems change, they must change public attitudes so people believe the changes they seek are fair and right. They strive to make the change they seek the new normal.” This insight should be applied to a corporate change as well, with a renewed focus on redesigning what a social license to operate is all about, making sure that companies that do not do what they need to do lose their social license to operate.

Bottom line: If we want to win the war on climate change we need to expand our theory of change and pursue new ways to redesign the business environment. While we need to flip the Senate, we need to start working on flipping JPMorgan and other corporations critical for this fight. The question should be not just how do we win the Senate, but how do we win this fight no matter who controls the Senate.

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School in New York. He is currently working on a new book: “Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach”, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2021. Feel free to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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