COP26: An urgent need for systemic climate thinking

Our leaders are struggling to put the climate ahead of political expediency. But climate is a global system — and needs systemic solutions.

Hope is a rare and precious thing. And it is all too easily snuffed out. A promising first week of COP26 has led to a disappointing second week, as the provisional agreement lacks ambition — and any real plan that would avert catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

Something must be done, everyone agrees. But someone else must do it. Or if we must do it, not yet. The short-term demands of the political cycle don’t mesh well with the long-term demands of the global crisis.

And therein lies the problem.

This is not a problem that is amenable to the normal political debate. Climate change will not respect national boundaries, nor will its effects spread evenly. Those who are likely to be spared the worst excesses of climate change have less incentive to act — but they are merely postponing a problem, and not by much.

Our political system rests atop an older and more powerful climatic system. And it cares not one whit for human lines on a map. This will either be solved by humanity working together — or it will not be solved at all. 

Systemic climate change

As Parag Khanna explained back in our NEXT Limited Edition, those less impacted by climate change will become the focus of migration from those regions badly hit. They may well, as he outlined, need the extra people that this migration will bring. But the current crisis around the Belarusian border should be a reminder that migration remains — and is likely to remain — a sensitive political issue

Failure to achieve a politically negotiated set of targets and agreements now is only postponing the pain to come. And, in all likelihood, magnifying it, as the successors of today’s leaders need to deal with natural disasters and migration on an unprecedented scale. 

It is a challenge on a scale humanity has never attempted before. But we do have a model. In the late 1980s, the globe ratified the Montreal Protocols, which reversed the erosion of the ozone layer. We need to replicate and surpass that.

Right now, we’re proving to be a lesser generation than the one that went before.

A climate of hope 

That’s not to say that we can’t find some hope. The conference isn’t yet over as I write this. A rabbit yet may be pulled from the summit hat. Certainly, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of this summit, has a habit of pulling off dramatic last-minute reversals, when negotiations seemed to be failing. The history of the Brexit negotiations revealed that pattern.

Even more so, the surprising — shocking even — announcement of an agreement between China and the US for greater co-operation on the climate crisis is grounds for hope. These are the world’s biggest emitters working together to change course. Given the tensions between the two superpowers in recent years, nobody was expecting this.

And it is significant.

The perfect climate for systems thinking

The world may be a complex system, but these two nations are unusually large nodes in that system. Both through their own actions, and those nations they wield economic and political power over, they could change the dynamic. They could shift the system.

They are also, we would do well to remember, the two great providers of technology to the world now. If those two nations could harness their technological, business and manufacturing acumen to provide some of the technological solutions we need, the balance of the system will shift in the direction it must. 

In the end, though, even if COP26 does fail, we should not lose all hope. Systems are complex, but prone to exponential effects. One person, one company, one technology can lead to bullwhip effects that could change the conversation again by the time we reach COP27, or 28. 

The Exponential Butterfly

As the late Steve Jobs once said:

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it…

We are all part of the system called Earth. We need it to survive. And we can all have an impact greater than we might believe. And we don’t believe it because we’re not used to thinking at a system scale. 

But we need to start doing that. And we are starting to. Seven countries have committed to ending fossil fuel use. Part of the system is changing. It’s a start. And we must all follow: as consumers, as politicians and as business people. 

We are the system. We can change the system.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash