Who Gives a F*ck About The United Nations’ New Climate Report?

Source: UNEP

On November 26 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published the “Emissions Gap Report 2019”, in which it “examines the progress of countries to close the gap via their commitments to emissions reduction, to ultimately stop climate change.” The report’s message was very clear: “The summary findings are bleak. Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required”.

I don’t plan to go in detail into the findings — if you’re interested, check UNEP’s summary and the analysis on CarbonBrief. Still, it’s worth mentioning the report suggests that collectively we haven’t done so far what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5C, and if we still want to meet this goal, “we now need to reduce emissions by 7.6 percent every year from 2020 to 2030”. As the Guardian pointed out, “the only time in recent history when emissions have fallen in any country at a similar rate came during the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the financial crisis and recession, emissions in the US and Japan fell briefly by about 6% but soon rebounded.”

While I should mention that the report is not entirely bleak, its message about the urgency of the needed action and the closing window of opportunity to meet the 1.5C goal is crystal clear.

And yet, my guestimation is that 99% of the people don’t give a f*ck about the report.

If you do give a f*ck, or your twitter feed has been extremely vocal about the report and you think I’m exaggerating, I invite you to do a quick poll around your Thanksgiving table (or check with your friends and family if you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving) and see for yourself if I got it wrong. If I did, I definitely want to join your circle of friends and family, but my gut feeling is that my estimate is pretty conservative.

Just to be clear, when I’m talking about someone giving a f*ck, I mean the following: You’ve heard about the report, understand its message and will take action accordingly. To give a f*ck you need to meet all the criteria — it’s not just enough to hear about the report, or even understand its message — as I’ll try to make the case later knowledge doesn’t worth much without translating it into action.

So, if we can (hopefully) agree that the answer to the question “who needs to give a f*ck about this report” is everyone, let’s focus on why most people don’t do it. From my point of view there are five main reasons:

1) Business as usual is stronger is still very prevalent

Most people are looking around and see business as usual. The signals they receive from their environment provide little to no indication that we’re in a crisis mode. People go on their daily routine, the institutions they rely on function (almost) normally, there is no evidence of a shortage of main resources or unexpected hike in prices, and even the most atrocious examples of the current system, such as Singles Day (or its American cousin Black Friday), Rush shipping and Super Bowl ads don’t seem to lose steam.

When the world around you gives you so many signals that everything is OK, what are the chances you will seriously consider a report that not only tells you the opposite, but also suggests that drastic changes must be made to address this crisis? Probably not that high!

2) Poor communication of the climate crisis

The report’s summary says the following: “On the brink of 2020, we now need to reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent every year from 2020 to 2030. If we do not, we will miss a closing moment in history to limit global warming to 1.5°C. If we do nothing beyond our current, inadequate commitments to halt climate change, temperatures can be expected to rise 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels, with devastating effect.”

What do you understand from it? For example, what’s the difference between warming of 1.5C and 3.2C? How bad is the latter comparing to the former? We’re dealing with the most important issue of our era, and yet we can’t figure out how to communicate it in ways that ordinary people, who are not climate scientists, can actually understand.

Until we won’t find the way/s to translate this jargon into a plain language that can help us make sense of this crisis, we are stuck in this unproductive zone that Colin Jost articulated so well in an SNL sketch on the 2018 IPCC report: “We don’t really worry about climate change because it’s too overwhelming, and we’re already in too deep. It’s like if you owe your bookie $1,000, you’re like, ‘oh yeah, I gotta pay this dude back.’ But if you owe your bookie $1 million, you’re like, ‘I guess I’m just gonna die.’”

3) “Boomer mindset” rules

OK Boomer” has became a popular generational outcry on climate change after Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has used it in New Zealand’s Parliament. From my perspective this is not about putting all the blame on baby boomers (born between 1946–1964), but on a “boomer mindset” that rejects radical change and prefers incremental progress at best. This mindset is just not capable of considering any system other than the current one and thus both directly and indirectly discredits reports like the UNEP climate report, which basically tells us we need to radically change the current system to meet the 1.5C goal.

The protest of students during the Yale-Harvard football game, calling on both universities “to divest their endowments from fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt” was a good example of the “boomer mindset”. Both universities resist the demand to divest their large endowments ($70 billion combined) from fossil fuel with different excuses, such as “targeting fossil fuel suppliers for divestment, while ignoring the damage caused by consumers, is misdirected” (Yale) and “the University’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends” (Harvard). This is the type of a “boomer mindset” that resists radical changes and tries to maintain traditional ways of thinking, no matter how irrelevant they are in the age of the climate crisis.

To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s famous quote (“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic”), the greatest danger in times of climate crisis is to act with a boomer’s mindset!

4) The Paris Agreement + UN climate conferences

It may seems a bit weird to suggest the United Nations may be responsible to the fact that most people don’t give a f*ck about its own report, but I’m afraid this is the case.

My argument is this — none of the main frameworks the United Nations uses seem to be working. The report itself suggests that the commitments nations provided through the Paris Agreement are too weak (“If current unconditional NDCs are fully implemented, there is a 66 per cent chance that warming will be limited to 3.2°C by the end of the century. If conditional NDCs are also effectively implemented, warming will likely reduce by about 0.2°C.”), and many countries even don’t meet these weak commitments.

Rather than considering a pivot (a change in the strategy without a change in the vision” — Eric Ries) in the Paris Agreement, the UN keeps moving forward with a failing strategy that seems to taking us further and further away from the Paris Agreement goals — holding the global average temperature rise to as close as possible to 1.5°C.

The same goes with the climate conferences — everyone is now talking about COP25 in December like there’s any chance to see there some dramatic progress, but the chances are it won’t be that different from COP24, which wasn’t much of a success to say the least. This framework, which aims to create a consensus among 190 countries around strengthening a failing strategy that is not enforceable, is exactly what Peter Drucker was talking about, when he suggested that “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

The problem with the UN not looking for new strategies and frameworks that can actually work is that it creates a barrier to starting an honest conversation on how to effectively fight climate change. Keeping on with the program, i.e. having the same climate conferences every year, while not changing anything about the Paris agreement’s execution strategy, provides a false sense that the adults in the room know what they’re doing. It’s time to admit they don’t.

5) We have no idea what to do about this report

Let’s say you heard about the report, you know it’s bad and you care about it. You actually want to do something about it, but what exactly?

The last point in the “10 Things to know about the Emissions Gap 2019” is as followed:

10. What can I do? If you’re short of time, read our interactive story or watch our video. For in-depth information and recommendations, please read the report. And, stay informed, share the science widely, and urge those with decision-making powers to act now.

This point demonstrates how bad we are in providing guidance on how to translate the notion of crisis into action. It lacks a compelling narrative, doesn’t consider what BJ Fogg describes as the information-action fallacy (i.e. “information alone rarely leads to behavior change. The assumption”), and lacks any clear understanding what are the most effective leverage points and how we’re supposed to utilize them.

Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his book “We Are the Weather”: “We are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it. That distance between awareness and feeling can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people — people who want to act — to act.” I agree with his argument — people need to feel immersed in this fight if we want to win it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure more data is the way to do it.

We need to have better narratives and storytelling, as well as clearer roadmaps — right now, the UN provides us with the equivalent of the list of recommendations at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”. This is not very helpful. As far as I can see there are three main “buckets” for action — activism, regulation/policy and innovation. If the UN wants to get the work done, it should start working on providing us with better advice on how to push politicians, companies and ourselves to do what we need to do — we’re way past the time of just suggesting: “act now”.

This is of course not just the job of the UN, but it’s time also for the UN to consider changing the focus from the ‘why’ and ‘what’, which I believe we all agree on to the ‘how’. As Greta Thunberg pointed out: “We already have all the facts and solutions.” It’s time to focus on how we realize them.

Finally, today people in the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving so it’s an opportunity to say thank you to all of the people who do give a f*ck: Students who are striking against the inaction on climate, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise movement and many other activists, climate scientists who dedicate their life and professional careers to this fight, employees calling their companies to adopt bolder climate plans, political leaders who demonstrate leadership on climate change, and all the other incredible people around the world who wok tirelessly to challenge the status quo on this issue!

I want to thank young people, who lead this fight with great enthusiasm and unwillingness to accept business-as-usual, in particular. In his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, Mark Manson writes: “Maturity is what happens when one learns to only give a fuck about what’s truly fuck-worthy.” You provide all of us a lesson in maturity by demonstrating that climate change is f*ck worthy, and I hope to see more people joining you. Thank you!

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Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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