Climate change: Science and scepticism – Open Access Government
Peter Jansen – Principle Lecturer and sustainable business expert, London School of Business and Finance, explains the science behind climate change and the barriers preventing people and businesses from acting
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an inter-governmental body of the United Nations, published a report called “Global Warming of 1.5°C” (IPCC, 2018). The report reveals that human-induced activities have caused average global warming of 1°C (+/- 0.2°C) above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and that the relentless consumption of fossil fuels is driving warming of 0.2°C (+/- 0.1°C) per decade.
Moreover, in most scenarios, the world will not prevent a mean average global warming of 1.5°C in the next 20 years and 1.5°C levels could even be achieved as early as 2030 unless ambitious mitigation and climate adaptations towards sustainability are implemented (Levin, 2018). This further confirms the need for increased global collaboration regarding policy and mitigation to prevent global climate change which will drive increasing poverty, inequality and human suffering.
The primary greenhouse gases (GHG) driving global warming are carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, ozone and nitrous oxide. While GHG are naturally existing gases, heightened levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are directly connected with the use of high-carbon fossil fuels (IPCC, 2018).
Global warming was identified internationally as the cause for climate change during the 1930s and 1950s. However, it is not just global warming and high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are the problem, there are also related impacts such as the melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers due to global warming causing sea-levels to rise and resulting in unprecedented structural damage and the displacement of millions of people living in low areas. Rising temperatures will also result in massive heat-related migration from hot to cooler regions and natural weather systems will become more extreme (droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc). Finally, climate change effects will mainly affect vulnerable populations (IPCC, 2018).
When the potentially disastrous effects of climate change are so obvious, why do people and businesses fail to address this problem which threatens to undermine human civilisation? One reason is that the social and economic benefits of fossil fuels have long eclipsed the threat of global warming.
However, the exponential global population growth is only increasing the demand for these resources. Gifford (2011) argues that inaction stems from both financial restrictions and psychological barriers, such as limited problem knowledge, ideological world views, distrust towards experts and authorities and perceived risks of change.
Finally, several legitimate scientific counter-arguments to the IPPC reports have also created confusion regarding the reasons for and necessity of a transition to a low-carbon economy, as climate change and global warming are complex and multidimensional issues (Ringrose, 2018).
As stated by the IPPC (2018), sustainable development does not imply a return to pre-industrial times. It is a period of change and self-reflection which can strengthen both the economy and the wellbeing of society. The concept of sustainable economic development was first mentioned in the Brundtland Report (‘Our Common Future’, 1987) from the World Commission on Environment and Development.
Sustainable economic development “meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). This definition of sustainability involves two key premises that give some guidance: 1. Economic activity should advocate social welfare and conserve natural resources and 2. Economic activity should consider impacts on future generations and manage natural resources in such a way that they remain productive for future generations (Sanders and Wood, 2015).
The idea that not only the government but also businesses share some responsibility for the environment and society at large really gained ground in the 1980s. Sustainability is not an abandoning of the traditional profit principle of business, on the contrary. The advantages of sustainability can be less pollution, healthy ecosystems, advanced public health and satisfied consumers, but the basic driver is company profit. Sustainability would fail if it did not lead to profit, instead, it only grew. Sustainability is of strategic importance for companies, not just for environmental reasons, but because it makes business sense (Sanders and Wood, 2015).
This idea is also supported by scientific research. Research shows that high-adopters of environmental management systems (EMS: ISO 14001) are more disposed to show reductions in air emissions, solid waste and energy consumption. It also identified financial benefits from EMS implementation, including increased operational efficiency, raw material and energy preservation, improved access to subsidies and lower insurance premiums. Other less tangible benefits include improved company reputation and risk minimisation (Sanders and Wood, 2015).
However, recent studies show that businesses are not prepared for fast changes in financial reporting regulation, let alone for the impacts climate change will have on their organisations. Messenger, Effedi and Pierce (2017) in a multi-country and multi-sector study concluded that companies are reluctant to embrace new low-carbon technologies because they are afraid they might lose out if their competitors don’t follow them. They also found a huge global disparity in terms of preparedness and a positive correlation between markets that have existing regulation (e.g. the European Union) and compliance or preparedness, although this may change rapidly due to a changing public opinion (Extinction Rebellion!) and investors and regulators increasingly demanding climate-related financial disclosures.
Business leaders from around the world agree that sustainable business development is key to remaining competitive. Much can be achieved with the existing technology but there is still a long way to go. New carbon regulations are about to come online at an increased rate and with increasing international reach, as trading partners and blocks are looking for new ways to strengthen and develop the impact of their existing policies (World Bank and Ecofys, 2018). The tipping point has been reached and more and more people and businesses start to take climate change seriously and are willing to act in order to prevent future generations from taking the brunt.
Gifford, R., (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302.
IPCC, (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 °C. Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [Online source] Available: http://www.ipcc.ch/re- port/sr15/
Levin, K., (2018). The world will exceed its “carbon budget” in 12 years, according to UN report. World Economic Forum.
Messenger, S., Effendi, I., Peirce, A., (2017). Ready or not: Are companies prepared for the TCFD recommendations? A geographical analysis of CDP 2017 responses Joint CDSB and CDP Report.
Ringrose, P.S., (2018). Principles of sustainability and physics as a basis for the low-carbon energy transition. Petroleum Geoscience,23, pp. 287-297.
Sanders, N.R. and Wood, J.D. (2015). Foundations of sustainable business: Theory, function, and strategy. John Wiley & So`ns.
WCED (1984). Our Common Future. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. United Nations.
World Bank and Ecofys. 2018. State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2018 (May), by World Bank, Washington DC.
Principal Lecturer and Sustainable Business Expert
London School of Business and Finance
Tel: +44 (0)20 3535 1122