Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Is Global Warming Real?

I pose this question with no intention of answering it.

Rather, the question is a springboard for addressing a situation that many in the sustainability community have to face: curiosity, doubt, cynicism, and often-times outright hostility about the topic of man-made Global Warming. Corporate sustainability is not limited to questions of climate.  However, there is no other aspect in the field that inflames passions so greatly (on both sides of the debate)--and therefore no issue that potentially can impede your successful execution of a corporate sustainability program.   The point of this post is merely to give you both a strategy and some tactics for overcoming this particular objection. 

As a sustainability professional, one of your principal job requirements is salesmanship: you are asking a lot of very busy people to do things very differently; doing so will benefit them, but that doesn't mean that they see that end-game when you first walk through their office doors.  And because Global Warming is such a radioactive topic, the likelihood of deep-seated objection increases greatly.  The Japanese martial art of Aikido emphasizes non-violent resolution of conflict, often by pre-empting the attack before it can gather momentum--a strategy that works well when you enter the ring of Global Warming debate.  I hope that the following approach enables you to side-step an unwinnable debate about an un-knowable topic, while advancing toward your goals of building internal partnerships that will achieve sustainability goals.

I have found that the best approach to what I will term "Global Warming Deniers" is preemptive action.  I try to dispense of objections before they can even be raised.  This means introducing the topic early and proactively, and framing it in a non-threatening way.  In all formal presentations and in many less-than-formal discussions, my goal is to de-fuse the Global Warming dynamite before the fuse even ignites.  My standard opening gambit goes something like this:
"Is Global Warming real?  Who knows.  And more importantly, who cares?  Because the (political/management/regulatory/market) concensus is that Global Warming is real, dangerous and already underway.  So unless you are (US President/company CEO/agency director/market maker), what you and I believe, or what we think we can prove doesn't matter.  The context in which you do your job must be that Global Warming is real--because the rulemakers have deemed it so."
For some people, this is enough, and the subject is put to bed.  For many others, however, this is just the opening they've been waiting for.  If you don't control the discussion, you may be in for a protracted and thorny interchange that bears only passing resemblance to productive dialog. Sadly, Global Warming incites nearly religious fervor, and certain opponents demand the opportunity to advance their dogma.  For example, I was recently told:  "You have to admit that the emails [day-lighted leading up to the Copenhagen summit] prove that Global Warming is a hoax."  Even if I believe that assertion (I believe the emails raise additional questions about the causes of current Climate Change, but that they prove nothing about the actual inter-relationship of man and climate), there is ABSOLUTELY ZERO constructive result that can emerge from engaging in a dialog on the subject.

In such instances, I try to move quickly beyond the the environmental impact of corporate sustainability, and onto its potential for reducing costs and increasing profits.  That dialog goes something like this:
Global Warming Denier: "Well, I don't believe in Global Warming, and therefore, I don't see any reason to support any program that will reduce our carbon footprint."
Me:  "Okay, so I'll concede for the sake of this discussion that reducing your company's carbon footprint won't make any difference related to global temperature.  But what if I told you it will increase your company/business unit's profitability?"
Usually, this tactic yeilds the "tell-me-more" response.  But I believe that its success depends on two pre-requisites.  First,  you must shift the discussion out of the realm of climate dogma and back to business basics: what if that which I am describing can make good business sense? This approach can rapidly migrate a person from global warming denier to curious capitalist.  But I also think it is crucial to frame this issue as a question.  This has a dual effect: it takes the counter-party out of the pulpit of his expertise, and shifts the dialog to an arena where you are--at least between the two of you--the expert.  It therefore gives you control of both the direction and the tenor of the conversation.  What was momentarily contentious can swiftly become instructive.  Finally, it gives you credibility in the eyes of the counter-party: since you are demonstrating a willingness to supplicate at the Temple of Almighty Profit, you can't really be a total lefty-loony bugs-and-bunnies eco-nut.

The majority of people in business are coldly profit-driven.  By migrating sustainability discussions into constructive dialog focused on balance sheets and P&L performance, you will have greater success in building internal partnerships and advancing your sustainability mandate.  Internal stakeholders, whether "global warming deniers" or not, who see the business sense of reducing material inputs and lowering costs associated with waste stream remediation, become valuable allies.  Over time, such recruiting is your central mission.  The enterprise that unifies the most employees under the banner of sustainability--whether to curtail Global Warming or simply to enhance profitability--is the one that will see the greatest success.

Full disclosure:  On balance, I believe the evidence supports the thesis that anthropogenic forces account for a rise of atmospheric carbon levels from a pre-industrial revolution average levels of 280 ppm to current readings around 385 ppm.  But those findings do not prove causation.  As an advocate of the Precautionary Principle, I therefore am also a strong proponent of all reasonable efforts to curtail human-driven GHG emissions, especially in concert with a reduction in industrial dependence on fossil fuels. 
Put more simply:  Do I believe that Global Warming is real?  Who knows. and who cares: the evidence suggests it is, and it would be a really bad idea to proceed down a business-as-usual path that results in irrevocable damage to our people and our planet.

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