How should we address climate change at work? Part 2 – let’s talk about it

March 29, 2022

In November I wrote the first of a two-part series looking at the climate crisis in a work context. It explored the psychological barriers that stop us even thinking about the subject and ended with a promise that next time I’d explore what we should actually do. It’s taken me four months to reach the conclusion that I don’t know. And actually, that’s ok.  Why would I know when everyone’s situation is so different? But what I have realised is that we need to normalise talking about the climate at work.

Having spoken to a lot of people who have trodden this path before me, here are four conclusions I’ve come to.

1. We focus too much on our role as consumers

Most of us have three roles in society. We’re citizens, consumers and workers (professionals, if that sits more comfortably). As citizens, there’s a range of actions we can take to address the climate crisis from writing strongly worded emails to joining community groups to gluing ourselves to trains.

But much of the emphasis in the climate conversation is on us as consumers. What do we buy? How much stuff have we got? How much do we fly? What kind of car do we drive? And on, and on. It’s not that these things don’t matter but there are two key problems:

A) many of the things we actually do – buying reusable coffee cups, banning plastic straws – make almost no difference (environmentalist George Monbiot calls them micro-consumerist bollocks). And some of them actually make matters worse (apparently, an organic cotton shopping bag is an environmental nightmare).

B) it takes the pressure off governments, organisations and businesses, which is where the real change needs to happen. This isn’t accidental. The idea of the individual carbon footprint, for example, was popularised by BP to shift the responsibility on to individuals.

For those of us in leadership roles – or advisory roles with leaders – our professional lives may be the place where we can make the most difference to the environment. Yet it’s often the area where we pay the least attention to it, beyond what you might call ‘corporate micro-consumerist bollocks’ – using recycled paper and adding a message to your emails about “only printing this if it’s really necessary”. We need a more fundamental change than that.

2. We’re all stuck in a flawed system

I heard a scientist say recently that he couldn’t take economists seriously as they keep trying to defy the laws of physics. They advocate unlimited growth on a planet with finite resources. How did we get into this irrational situation?

The best analogy I’ve come across was from a lecture on artificial intelligence. Once AI has become smarter than us (‘the singularity‘), we’ll need to be very careful about any objective we give it to avoid unintended consequences. For example, supposing we ask an algorithm to reverse the increase in carbon emissions and their solution is to kill off anyone whose emissions are above the global average. We’d all be gone. Similarly, the global economic system, the lecturer argued, could be seen as an algorithm with a single objective: Maximise Shareholder Value. Nothing gets in the way of that objective and we’re all stuck in a system where that’s what is rewarded, regardless of the unintended consequences on people and planet.

It’s not that businesses are evil. OK, I accept that some people at the top of large organisations (and their lawyers and PR agents) are probably malevolent psychopaths. But not all of them. Many are just blinkered, maximising value at all costs. It’s not necessarily even what shareholders want, but they’re stuck in the system too.

Most of us have so much to juggle in our day-to-day work that we just get on with it. We know there’s this thing to deal with, but it mostly stays in the ‘too big, too complicated’ box. It will take a sea-change (pun intended) in public consciousness for the environment to become a normal part of business conversation, rather than a fringe concern, but I sense that it’s coming.

3. We need strong, ethical leadership

Let’s not pretend this is easy. We need systemic change. We need to talk about things we don’t normally talk about at work. The problem is complex, urgent and multi-layered. There is no agreement about what to do. There are vested interests  – and dark money – trying very hard to maintain the status quo while looking like they’re doing something.

We need business leaders with sharp minds, open hearts and moral courage. These are the people I want to work with. I’m not a leader. It’s not my role in life. But I can – and I do –  coach leaders. What my clients tell me they value is that I help them sort through the muddle and get to the heart of the matter. If I think about my small contribution to solving this crisis on a professional level, it’s to help leaders work out how to play their part.

4. Coaches don’t need to be neutral on this

Coaching is meant to be all about what the client brings, right? When I first got interested in the emerging discipline of climate coaching, I was worried about introducing my own agenda into coaching. But the more I’ve talked to others in this field, the more I’ve realised that this isn’t about pushing my ideas. And it certainly isn’t about telling people what to do, not least because I don’t know. I have no intention of becoming an environmental consultant or devising ESG policies.

Bringing an awareness of climate into coaching is about offering people the space to talk about this enormous global challenge, if they choose to. My leadership coaching is still likely to focus on all the usual stuff – influencing skills, delegation, building a team. But lurking behind all that is that context in which a leader operates. And the context is that the environment is in big trouble – and so are we. If your business strategy assumes a stable climate, it’s science fiction.

Sometimes the role of the coach is to broaden the conversation and help someone focus their leadership attention where it needs to be focused. I can’t imagine spending a whole coaching session talking about team building if I knew a client’s business was on the verge of going bust. I wouldn’t let it slide if a client told me they regularly work 18 hour days and took no exercise. Why would this other elephant in the room remain ignored?

So that’s where four months of introspection and talking to wiser heads has got me. I’d be interested to know where you’ve got to in your thinking about the challenge of our age:


Photo by Danya Gutan from Pexels

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One Comment

  1. April 3, 2022 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this site. Thanks!

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