Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Fact Checking the Climate Crisis: Franzen vs. Facebook on False News

Critique of Climate Feedback fact checking exercise of an article by the writer Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker, published September 8, 2019, by leading climate scientists Wolfgang Knorr and Will Steffen
Fact Checking the Climate Crisis: Franzen vs. Facebook on False News
Last year, the writer Jonathan Franzen, not known for mincing his words, took up an opportunity offered by the New Yorker to bring his very own perspective to the debate about the impending climate crisis. The headline read: What If We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.
Image 1 
Screengrab of Facebook false news warning 
Feb 15th 2020
You would think that this was just another opinion piece on the climate catastrophe, this time by a writer from whom you would not expect new insights about the climate system, but maybe some other truths related to the general human predicament. If you happened to be a social media user, however, you might be in for some surprise. On February 15th, the moderators of the Facebook group Positive Deep Adaptation received a “partly false information” warning about Franzen’s New Yorker article having been posted in their group. The warning explicitly referred to an article by the fact checking site Climate Feedback (see image 1). Following considerable political pressure, fact checkers are now routinely used by social media sites to prevent the spread of “false news”. Sanctions for repeat offenders include reducing visibility for the group or site, or removing the ability to earn income (see image 2). 
This gives Climate Feedback’s verdict considerable weight. In this article, we will review the fact checking exercise itself, in order to see if the matter has been handled with the necessary care and level of responsibility. According to their web site Climate Feedback is a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage. As senior climate scientists, our goal is to help readers know which news to trust.
Fact checking the fact checkers
The first thing we noticed was that from the headline and the information below it, it was not possible to tell the exact claim that was being assessed. While the headline read “2°C is not known to be a ‘point of no return’, as Jonathan Franzen claims”, the actual claim by Franzen stated further down was “The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius.” What was left out is some text that in the original article follows immediately after and is therefore an integral part of the claim made by Franzen: “(maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less)”. The verdict: incorrect There is an important distinction here: is the claim being reviewed that there is a consensus – which Climate Feedback easily refute because none of the scientist reviewers seems to subscribe to this supposed consensus – or is it rather about the existence of a supposed “point of no return”? In the following, we will discuss both possibilities.
Contrary to the claim by Climate Feedback, and the entire point made by the last reviewer, Marcus Fontela, there is indeed a scientific basis for Franzen’s article, even though he vastly overrates the degree of consensus or the level of scientific understanding of such a hypothesis. 
All scientist reviewers – except for one who did not provide references at all – referred to an article led by one of us: Steffen and co-workers (2018) Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene1. It appears that the reviewers correctly identified the source of Franzen’s “point of no return”. The article in question hypothesizes the existence of mutually reinforcing tipping points, or positive feedback mechanisms, in the earth’s climate system. It does not provide definite proof of the existence of such a “tipping cascade”, nor does it say they will all suddenly happen when 2°C of warming is reached, but rather sketches out a plausible scenario. It also provides estimates for the degree of warming required for tipping to be triggered. “Tipping” here means irreversible changes that a return to a lower degree of warming will not be able to stop – or “point of no return”. According to our understanding, the following tipping elements might be affected at 2°C of warming:
  1. West Antarctic Ice Sheet – likely tipped (i.e. irreversibly on the pathway to eventual collapse)2
  2. Coral reefs – likely tipped (wide-spread destruction from heat stress and ocean acidification)
  3. Arctic sea ice cover – likely tipped (irreversible situation arises from increasing heat provided by the darker ocean surface as summer ice disappears)4
  4. Amazon rainforest - likely tipped taking into account current rates of human deforestation (i.e. the loss of forest itself decreases regional precipitation rates, thus increasing the overall reduction in rainfall, further influenced by a weakening AMOC – see next point)5,6
  5. Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC, the ocean current that brings warm waters to western Europe) – probably not tipped, but significantly weakened7 
  6. Permafrost carbon stores – probably not tipped, but significant carbon emissions.3 

The Special Report on 1.5°C Warming3 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also backs up Franzen’s claim – to some degree. The IPCC assessed the probability of “large-scale singular events” at 2°C of warming and gave a rating of "moderate to high" (Summary for Policymakers, Figure 2). And a recent commentary in the journal Nature by Tim Lenton and co-workers8 shows evidence that some of those tipping elements may have already been activated.
Another point of potential confusion is that the reviewers do not provide a clear definition of what they believe was meant by “point of no return”. They only suggest that Franzen was talking about a sharp boundary at 2°C warming, for example Patrick Brown: “[...] There was never a scientific consensus that 2.0°C represented some well-defined bright line where impacts suddenly became much worse or feedbacks suddenly became completely self-perpetuating.” Franzen does indeed talk about one point being crossed, but it is not clear if he means a sharp and clearly defined boundary, or rather that somewhere around 2°C a tipping cascade will be triggered. And if a tipping cascade exists, then it will be triggered at a single point, so by definition there would have to be a clearly defined point of transition. It is only questionable if it could be characterised simply by degrees of warming. We must also note that Brown’s 2.0°C “bright line” is a rhetorical ploy designed to ridicule the author’s scientific understanding, where Franzen in fact concedes that his “point” may not be reached at exactly 2°C.
A charge repeated by several reviewers is that Franzen does not understand how climate models work. In fact, Amber Kerr and Charles Koven seem to base their criticism entirely on modelling results. This must be a clear misunderstanding: neither does the New Yorker article refer anywhere to computer modelling, nor has it ever been claimed that it was possible to reliably model tipping cascades. Instead, it is the reviewers who display a remarkable lack of apprehension for the limitations of modelling. For example when Amber Kerr writes: “He says that ‘As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling,’ but he seems to be unaware that scientists have already carried out many qualitative and quantitative climate risk assessments, using policy changes and human behavior as variables.” But even the supporters of such models stress their limitations, while others argue that they are entirely unsuitable for the job
The most serious criticism brought forwards by the reviewers is that of Franzen’s fatalism, when he claims “that additional warming over 2°C doesn’t matter” (Amber Kerr). This is a criticism we share. We note, however, that Franzen's apparent misinterpretation of the science is based on a gross overstatement of scientific certainty, which is interesting given the reviewers’ own faith in modelling results. As climate scientists having worked with and developed computer models we rather share Franzen’s pessimism about what models can achieve. For very similar reasons, other scientists who have worked specifically on the possibility of catastrophic climate change have based their conclusions mostly on evidence from past climates, using only minimal modelling9.
The most balanced and objective review, in our opinion, is the one by Alexis Berg, whose main point is the speculative nature of the tipping cascade scenario. He is also more honest and cautious when referring to modeling (italics included by the authors): “Climate model simulations, for instance, which do include some of these feedbacks, do not suggest runaway climate change beyond 2°C.” It is true that the article by Steffen and co-workers is “intended to highlight [...] the high side of the risk distribution”. Franzen seems indeed to have ignored that he has based his whole essay on a hypothesis that was just that – a hypothesis and a warning of what could happen if we continue on the current path.
One more important question that the reviewers, and possibly Climate Feedback in general, should address is whether statements that are inherently about the future can even be fact checked. It is true that the review mostly talks about our current understanding of the climate system. But the event this refers to is in the future. We have therefore no way of empirically either proving or refuting the hypothesis of a discontinuity in the climate system. Hence the repeated reference of the reviewers to model results. What they don’t seem to realise, however, is that models are themselves nothing else than codified hypotheses.
Our recommendation
We believe that this New Yorker article – classified as a “cultural commentary” – should never have been fact checked in the first place. Other authors should of course be free to criticise it, as they have done repeatedly. But at the very least Climate Feedbacks should have clearly stated that the fact checking exercise does not concern the possibility of a tipping cascade being triggered – which can be neither proven nor refuted – but only the level of scientific consensus. For such cases, Climate Feedbacks’ methods provide for a set of well-defined categories that should be stated in the details section of the overall verdict:
Overstates scientific confidence: Presents a conclusion as conclusive while the hypothesis is still being investigated and there remains genuine scientific uncertainty about it.
We would have agreed with such a verdict. Instead, the details provided characterise Franzen’s article as “Misleading: While positive feedbacks exist that amplify temperature changes, scientists have not identified a ‘point of no return’ at 2°C.” 
This overall verdict is itself incorrect, or at least seriously misleading. Scientists have indeed identified the likelihood of such a point of no return, even though it is unlikely the point exists at a sharply defined temperature threshold. Identification does not imply there to be a definite, or even a strong scientific proof. And the overall presentation of the verdict is itself misleading for several reasons: it blatantly omits the final part of the sentence being criticised where the author concedes that he does not believe in a definite threshold value, the rhetorical use of “2.0°C”, the reference to climate models and the claim the author does not understand them, while creating the impression the reviewers don’t understand them either, and the lack of understanding that it is not possible to fact check assertions about the future.
In fact, if one is to “fact check” statements about the future, then the criterion for judgment should be whether there is enough credible evidence – be it from paleo studies, observational evidence, modelling results or, more appropriately, a synthesis of all such types of information – to make a well-reasoned case that the statement represents a plausible future. In other words, when dealing with future risks and events in general, the emphasis should be on whether or not the statement presents a plausible risk assessment rather than a “scientific fact”.
The elephant in the room
What most scientists commenting on his piece did not seem to have noticed is the value of Franzen’s article in naming the elephant in the room: that while emissions keep on rising inexorably, no political action even remotely strong enough to address the problem can be seen anywhere on the horizon. Let us listen to his words here:
As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption [...], and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe. [...]
Vast sums of government money must be spent without wasting it and without lining the wrong pockets. Here it’s useful to recall the Kafkaesque joke of the European Union’s biofuel mandate, which served to accelerate the deforestation of Indonesia for palm-oil plantations, and the American subsidy of ethanol fuel, which turned out to benefit no one but corn farmers.
Anyone with even the faintest inkling of today’s political reality will agree that it is irrelevant whether we can still prevent major disruptions of the climate system in theory10, when the heads of state of the largest economy and of the country home to the largest tract of rainforest are outspoken climate change deniers. Needless to say, the so-called integrated assessment models used by the IPCC to run various scenarios contain no concept whatsoever of politics.
Fact checking and difficult truths
Our own view of the situation is somewhat different from Fanzen’s – it does not matter at precisely which level of warming tipping points will be reached, but it does matter how much planetary heating we will generate. As long as there is enough carbon11 contained in fossil-fuel reserves to triple even the current already high amounts of atmospheric CO2, and with no mechanism in sight that could guarantee us an end to fossil-fuel extraction, sooner or later the degree of global heating will reach a critical threshold that leads to major disruptions to human society. The question of whether it is already too late is not one that depends so much on the climate system, but on the ability of human society to rapidly change course. Most scientists, policy makers and even activists seem to tend towards optimism. Franzen disagrees, and we believe scientists should at least listen. 
Difficult truths are always hard to deal with, especially when they concern one’s own and all of humanity’s survival. Even if there was a sliver of truth in Franzen’s message, it would be a cause for great concern and anxiety. Since no scientist so far has said what Franzen does here, that it might not only be time to panic, but already too late, the predictable reaction of professional climate researchers has been almost universally negative. Someone known for his provocative writing style was treading on their turf!
We believe that fact checking is not a helpful approach to improve the debate about the climate crisis. It is not helpful when we need to confront a difficult truth that many, including scientists, find difficult to accept. It is also not helpful, because it supports a mistaken view of the sciences as being foremost about hard facts, and not about interpretation, debate, truth seeking and philosophical attitudes. And even more importantly – as George Marshall has amply demonstrated in his book “Don’t Even Talk about It” – opinions in the climate debate are very rarely swayed by facts. But users of social media have the right to know the position of the scientific community with respect to assertions made on matters of climate science. A much more helpful approach would be to offer this view in the form of reviews, critiques or other forms of essay, as it is done traditionally in the print media. Rather than being sent warnings with a threat of sanctions for repeat-offenders, publishers on social media could be required in certain cases to provide a suitable link so that the reader is helped to form his own opinion. In the case of the Franzen article, a simple disclaimer that his view of the climate system is seen as a low-probability but plausible scenario would surely have been appreciated. The climate crisis requires us to build bridges and not to exclude certain groups from the debate. Publisher's notes: On February 20th 2020 the "false news" warning is no longer showing on the admin panel of Positive Deep Adaptation facebook group. We will send this article to Facebook, Climate Feedback and the New Yorker for information and advice. An interview with the co-author of this article, climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr, goes in to more detail about how climate scientists might often mislead audiences through typical modes of communication. An article by IFLAS founder explores the extent to which assumptions about social psychology underpin the motivations and arguments of scientists and activists to criticise people for publically considering the implications of worst case scenarios. Co-author of this article, climate scientist Dr Will Steffen recently called for more research, dialogue and action on the possibilities of societal breakdown or collapse due to climate impacts. Last year IFLAS released a compendium of recent research that indicates the worst case scenarios for societal disruption from climate change are now increasingly likely. This was produced by Professor Jem Bendell, the initiator of the deep adaptation framework to climate change response. To discuss the issues arising from this article and issue, consider the Narratives and Messaging group on the Deep Adaptation Forum.
References
1 Steffen, W., J. Rockström, K. Richardson, T. M. Lenton, C. Folke, D. Liverman, C. P. Summerhayes, A. D. Barnosky, S. E. Cornell, and M. Crucifix (2018), Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(33), 8252-8259. (link)
2 IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (IPCC, 2019). (link)
3 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (IPCC, 2018). (link)
4 Drijfhout, S., S. Bathiany, C. Beaulieu, V. Brovkin, M. Claussen, C. Huntingford, M. Scheffer, G. Sgubin, and D. Swingedouw (2015), Catalogue of abrupt shifts in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change climate models, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(43), E5777-E5786. (link)
5Lovejoy, T. E. A., and C. Nobre (2018), Amazon tipping point, Science Advances, 4(2), eaat2340. (link)
6 Brayshaw, D. J., T. Woollings, and M. Vellinga (2009), Tropical and extratropical responses of the North Atlantic atmospheric circulation to a sustained weakening of the MOC, J. Clim., 22(11), 3146-3155. (link)
7 Caesar, L., S. Rahmstorf, A. Robinson, G. Feulner, and V. Saba (2018), Observed fingerprint of a weakening Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation, Nature, 556(7700), 191-196. (link)
8 Lenton, T. M., J. Rockström, O. Gaffney, S. Rahmstorf, K. Richardson, W. Steffen, and H. J. Schellnhuber (2019), Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against, Nature, 575, 592-595. (link)
9 Hansen, J., M. Sato, G. Russell, and P. Kharecha (2013), Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 371, 20120294. (link)
10 Anderson, K. (2015). Duality in climate science. Nature Geoscience, 8, 898-900. (link)
11 Global Energy Assessment (2012), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria. (link)


Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Financing Local Government Climate Emergency Responses With Currency Innovation

Across the UK and Europe, Local Governments have been declaring a climate emergency. Citizens are now asking what will this mean in policy and practice?

The context for these climate declarations includes a decade of significant budget cuts to Local Government. That means they have limited financial means with which to implement policies to either mitigate or adapt to dangerous levels of climate change.

To respond to this predicament, IFLAS researchers have prepared a concept for local currency innovation by local governments. The proposal is for an innovation which will both generate immediate finance for councils as well as promoting the development of payment systems that provide alternatives to mainstream financial and payments networks, thereby increasing resilience to future disturbance.
Prof Bendell presenting at a UN conference on currency innovation

Occasional Paper #4 seeks to start a conversation with people who have knowledge of either local government finances or the implementation of local policies on the climate emergency.

"Local Future Tax Credits: Towards a tool for local government to finance itself and help adapt to the climate emergency" is written by Matthew Slater, Jem Bendell & Dorian Cave.

The paper follows on from two previous occasional papers on the climate crisis, written by Professor Jem Bendell (#2 on "Deep Adaptation") and Professor Rupert Read (#3 on the coming end of our civilisation).

To discuss the issues in this new paper, we invite you to consider joining the Government and Policy discussion group of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

You can download the pdf of the paper here.

An article from the lead author, Matthew Slater, that describes how this proposal relates to the broader local currency agenda, is released here to coincide with the Occasional Paper.

This paper relates to IFLAS research on currency innovation, which includes doctoral research into the Lake District Pound (Christophe Place), volunteering currencies in heritage areas and sites (Cecile Smith-Christensen) and solidarity economy currencies such as Faircoin (Dorian Cave).

Monday, 4 November 2019

Will There be Academic Rebellion on Climate Change?


In September the Times Higher Education Supplement published an interview with me about how I began responding to the latest climate news – by changing the focus of my work and, thanks to my employer, going part time to focus more time volunteering on a side project, The Deep Adaptation Forum. The interview follows below. It accompanied an article exploring what the climate emergency could mean for Universities and academics. A few I know, including Alison Green, Larch Maxey and Wolfgang Knorr, have quit their jobs to focus on new activities. Others I know are struggling to refocus their research and teaching around topics that feel more important and urgent as the climate changes. If you are interested in exploring a research agenda on Deep Adaptation, please join the Research Group of the Forum. I will be talking about the role of Universities during the climate crisis in April 2020. The interview follows below.


Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership.


Too little, too late?


For a long time, Jem Bendell was happy to accept the received wisdom about climate change.

Professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria since 2012, he had previously worked with a range of universities, charities and United Nations agencies on projects relating to health, the environment and social justice. What they all had in common was the framework of sustainable development, which he defines as the belief that “we could somehow balance and integrate social, environmental and economic concerns as long as we were smarter and committed to doing so”.


After beginning to have doubts, however, Bendell decided to take a sabbatical for the academic year 2017-18 and spent several months looking seriously at climate science for the first time since he finished his Cambridge geography degree in 1995. Where previously he had “taken the analyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as authoritative”, he now began to see them as “very compromised” – and designed to “keep people in the room rather than running for the hills”. By March 2018, he had concluded that “disruption to society was not just probable, but inevitable, and most likely everywhere”. He also became increasingly convinced of “the dimensions of denial in my profession”.


Although sustainable development has “collapsed for [him] as an idea”, Bendell still believes that “we need to cut carbon emissions and draw down carbon emissions from the atmosphere, as fast as possible” – as “a last-ditch attempt to slow down climate change, not to stop it...There’s so much heating already locked into the system…Don’t pretend [we can] stop what’s already upon us: the weather which is destabilising and affecting agriculture. That is here and it’s getting worse, whatever we do, and we need to talk about how to prepare, how we deal with it emotionally.”


Reaching such a disturbing conclusion called into question Bendell’s “whole identity and sense of self-worth”. He got actively involved in Extinction Rebellion and has now reached agreement with Cumbria to go down to 35 per cent of a full-time role so he can “focus entirely on climate-adaptation research, teaching and outreach”.


But although he still operates within the academy, Bendell has become impatient with the pace of research and publication, and the many papers in his field that typically conclude, as he puts it, “If we don’t change, then we’re screwed” – rather than frankly acknowledging that “We’re screwed.”

Some of this came to a head when he wrote an article setting out his current thinking titled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”. Though he submitted it to Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Bendell felt unable to provide the rewrites requested by the referees and published it instead as an occasional paper for the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, which he had founded at Cumbria. The published version includes a tragicomic account of his correspondence with SAMPJ, which reveals just how far he has gone beyond the norms of his discipline in both style and content.


While a referee had criticised him for not identifying a “research question or gap” based on the current state of the literature, Bendell pointed out in reply that “the article is challenging the basis of the field…there are no articles in either SAMPJ or Organisation and Environment that explore implications for business practice or policy of a near-term inevitable collapse due to environmental catastrophe…”


There was a similar disagreement about how academic articles should be written. In arguing that “disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change [would] bring starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war”, Bendell had deliberately adopted a personal and emotional tone: “You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” One referee commented that “the language used is not appropriate for a scholarly article”.


Whether or not it breaches academic etiquette, Bendell’s “deep adaptation” paper has attracted much interest (with over half a million downloads) and caused a great deal of understandable distress. He is keen to keep engaging with the people he has affected and therefore set up the Deep Adaptation Forum, whose thousand members include over a hundred researchers [NB: now over 10,000 participants].


Meanwhile, in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios, Bendell wants us to look, for example, at how “we [in the UK] could produce more of our own food, no matter what the weather, have policies ready in case prices go through the roof, consider what contemporary food rationing looks like. We need to have that ready to go.” Other challenges relate to “energy security” and “maintaining payment systems for international trade”.


Alongside such practical issues, Bendell stresses the need for “more compassionate and curious ways of responding, rather than just grabbing a gun and saying ‘We have to be ruthless now and not care about the poor or the refugees’”. More surprisingly, perhaps, he also believes that embracing a sense of despair about the human future can be a “spiritual invitation” to ask ourselves “deep, deep questions”.


In abandoning the paradigm that shaped most of his earlier career, Bendell has set out an agenda that raises the deepest of questions not only for climate scientists but for us all.


Matthew Reisz

Read the full article here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/how-green-my-university

Professor Bendell teaches a 4 day leadership course that covers Deep Adaptation, in April 2020. Information here

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Executive Rebellion – when should we take to the streets on climate?

In September 2019, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Clare Farrell, who is also a lecturer at Central St Martins, gave an open lecture at the University of Cumbria, where she was introduced by Professor Jem Bendell. In this article, Dr. Bendell reflects on whether and how executives could respond to the growing protests on climate change. (The opinions are the author's, not an organisation). 

Climate protests are becoming unmissable. The youth-led climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion (XR) are mobilising millions of people around the world to demand significant action on climate change. This awakening amongst the general public is heartening for people who have been championing change within their organisations for years. Heartening, yes, but also confronting. Because the message from the streets is that efforts within the current economic system have not been enough – and won’t be enough.

Activists like XR co-founder Clare Farrell point out that decades of initiative have not stopped carbon emissions increasing at near exponentialrates since the industrial revolution. In her lecture at our University, she explained how the lack of change led her to take non-violent direct action. Unfortunately, the latest climate models are warning us of a catastrophe ahead that would unravel civilisation. Climate anxiety is spreading for good reason. It is the sane and informed response.  


Faced with this challenge to the economic and political systems we live within, what could executives in the private sector do? Some have expressed support for the protesters, for instance in public letters. Others have heard the alarm and are planning their escape to places they consider safer from the ravages of climate change. But will a bunker really insulate anyone from the collapse of agriculture due to extreme weather? No – as XR Spokesperson Dr. Rupert Read explained in an Occasional Paper for us, if resilience to future disruption is possible then it will be collective. It will involve whole societies coming together to curb emissions, adapt to extreme weather and soften the breakdown of our normal ways of life. That means system change - and fast.

So how might busy executives join this rebellion? Sitting on a street and waiting for arrest might not seem like the best use of your time. Though scoffing at such tactics would be churlish when nothing else has been effective yet on the climate emergency. People of all ages and from all walks of life are joining protests in over 60 cities. But how else might a busy executive rebel? I recently discussed this issue with both leaders in Extinction Rebellion and senior executives who have been applauding them from the side-lines.

As a result, I can share with you four steps you could take to join an executive rebellion against the ecological and climate crisis. Two of these involve using the power you have if you are a senior manager.

First, stop pretending to yourself or anyone else that corporate responsibility, social enterprise, sustainable business or responsible investment will make a dent in the problem at the scale or speed that is required. As someone who worked for over 20 years on voluntary business responses to environmental problems, I know the seductiveness of the story that we can take meaningful action within current systems. But it is time to let that go. Instead, you could seek to ensure that your company is not undermining, directly or indirectly, government action on the ecological and climate emergency. And commit to learn about how the system needs to change, rather than seeking more influence over the way it might.  

Second, engage internally within your organisations on the truth of the situation. That means discovering how much disruption to water, food, finance, and the international order is already underway and spreading. Create employees’ assemblies to help staff and families begin to explore how to prepare emotionally and practically for that disruption, and how to help others. Empower them with funds to back what they decide to do in their communities.  

Then consider what you can do outside of your organisation to leverage the capabilities you have an executive. Find time to reach out to activists to help them better understand how to upend the current system. For instance, to leave oil in the ground, it would help if activists knew who sets the accounting rules for large oil firms to keep valuing that stranded black stuff as an actual asset. Or if you know how precarious the just-in-time supplies of key food stuffs is becoming, the public should hear about it. The activists are asking for that help. It is why they have launched TruthTeller.life for executives to secretly rebel, by safely leaking information on inaction or the vulnerabilities in our global economy to top journalists.

But I think I’ve saved the best advice for last. 

The climate crisis is an existential one, threatening the future of humanity. The best thing one can do for children today is not to buy them a fancy education or top up their trust fund. Rather, it is to drop everything in order to try and slow the climate crisis and adapt societies to the difficulties ahead. So the fourth step you could take is to quit. Because our jobs are not as important as the climate crisis. Key leaders in the movement quit their jobs to join in full-time. Andrew Medhurst, quit his job in the City of London and ended up finance director for Extinction Rebellion. Alison Green quit her job as a Pro Vice Chancellor of a university to join the rebellion. Since then she set up Transition Lab to develop the policies for transformation. Another option is to go part-time, to find more time for the climate cause. Thanks to the flexibility of the University of Cumbria, that is what I did, so I could launch the Deep Adaptation Forum for people to prepare both practically and emotionally for breakdowns in our way of life. It is rapidly becoming a gathering place for people who wish to rebel just enough to help their professions adapt deeply and fairly to the troubles ahead. 

Executives in the private, government and charity sectors all face growing frustration at the clear net impotence of our actions on climate change. This ‘stasis anxiety’ will grow as the news on extreme weather and the latest science becomes more worrying. Extinction Rebellion call on “everybody now” to act with urgency. As protests unfold in cities around the world, it is time to consider joining an executive rebellion on climate change. 

Clare Farrell was a student on the sustainable leadership course, taught as an intensive residential by Professor Bendell just once a year in the Lake District, UK. The next cohort gathers in April 2020. You can read more or apply here