The Bleak Silence that Greeted Warning that we have 12 Years to Save the Planet


Geoffrey Jones explores the world’s reaction to the news that we have 12 years to reverse climate change and places it in wider historical context.

In October of this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations issued a 700-page report whose bottom line was that the world was set to warm by 3°C by the end of this century. If global warning was not limited to 1.5°C by 2030, the report insisted, the trend towards the 3°C increase would be locked in. To meet the 2030 target, carbon emissions would need to be reduced by 2030, and the world would need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Otherwise, we would encounter accelerating floods, droughts, heatwaves and food shortages to a point when current ways of life would be unsustainable.

If there was one thing more alarming than the stark warning,
it has been the reaction.

The usual suspects discounted the report as one point of view among many. President Donald Trump told an interviewer on the CBS 60 Minutes program after the report was issued that he believed “scientists also have a political agenda.” No surprises there. The truly startling thing, however, was the overall silence. The report was a one day wonder in a handful of what in the old days were called quality newspapers, and was relegated to a marginal semi-joke item in most others.

It is tempting, and surely valid, to blame some of this silence on short attention spans of the present age, the malign impact of social networking, and the distraction caused by on-going political upsets caused by the rise of populism and the decline of international norms. These are all major problems. The world also faces horrible crises associated with social and income inequality between countries, and within countries. And yet all these other challenges become moot if the Earth approaches environmental collapse, including vast areas sinking under water.

A little history reveals a more troubling perspective. Warnings about the negative environmental impact of industrialization, and the need to do something about it, can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century in the work of Henry David Thoreau and others. In the same period scientists documented the loss of habits and species and the word “ecology” was coined. Campaigns against smoke pollution were launched in industrial cities such as Chicago before World War 1. In 1948 a former US government employee published a book called Road to Survival which warned of the risks of rising populations, diminishing resources which were wasted through excessive consumption, and soil erosion and water shortages. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which warned of the health and environmental impact of chemical pesticides, was one of many such warnings in the 1960s. Two years after Carson’s book, Jerome Rodale, a pioneer of organic agriculture in the United States, published Our Poisoned Earth and Sky, which described in detail multiple environmental challenges under way. The United Nations held its first conference on environmental degradation in Stockholm in 1972. Yet as the 2018 report suggests, political and other actions were marginal, as environmental fundamentals continued to deteriorate, even as robust and menacing evidence of climate change began to accumulate in the 1990s.

The environmental costs of industry were conveniently dubbed externalities, and were nowhere to be found on corporate balance sheets

Modern business evidently drove environmental degradation: the environmental costs of industry were conveniently dubbed externalities, and were nowhere to be found on corporate balance sheets. However recent research has revealed how early some entrepreneurs moved to develop innovations which would help sustainability rather than make it worse. An American entrepreneur built a pioneering large solar plant, and deployed it in Egypt to irrigate crops before World War 1. Innovative waste recycling businesses were in place in Germany before World War 1. Motivated by concerns about the health of soil and people caused by chemical fertilizers, forward-looking entrepreneurs established organic food businesses from the 1920s and sought to persuade consumers to purchase this food. Throughout the twentieth century and beyond such efforts continued. The endeavours were heroic, but they remained for the most part boutique firms and never mainstreamed.

A look back at history, then, puts the silence that has largely greeted the 2018 report in perspective. Although the science is now far better, the warnings have been out there for more than a century. The solutions have also been out there for a long time. Architects have known for decades how to build buildings that are far more sustainable than at the present. The contribution of the methane gas given off by herds of cows raised for humans to eat have been known for decades to be driving climate change. It has long been no secret how to create waste management systems which avoid the ecological damage done by landfills. Japan now only puts 1.2 per cent of its waste in landfills: yet Britain and the United States continue to put in well over half.

A strong embrace of the historical evidence needs to be added to the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to warn about the scale of the system-wide lock-in that we now face. The efficiency of conventional capitalism, the influence of incumbency within power systems, the demands of a financial system incapable of incorporating sustainability into its metrics in a meaningful way, and myopia of individuals who struggle to see how their individual buying, lifestyle and voting decisions can make a difference have grown to become a massive system-wide roadblock to meaningful change. True sustainability will require systems-thinking, and a profound and holistic mindset change.

Geoffrey Jones is the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School and Faculty Chair of the School’s Business History Initiative.


His new book Varieties of Green Business: Industries, Nations and Time is out now.

Read Chapter One free on Elgaronline


Also available as an eBook on Google Play

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One Comment on “The Bleak Silence that Greeted Warning that we have 12 Years to Save the Planet”

  1. Bashar H. Malkawi Says:

    Climate change is serious issue that should be no joking matter. As a result of globalization and industrialization, polllution, economic inequality, and other problems arisen. Governments should take action by reducing carbon emission and take other measures at the multilateral level. Free trade agreements have role to play by promoting and enforcing social value such the environment.
    Bashar H. Malkawi


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