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IUCN Congress: Climate crisis responses must be mandated across organisations, not delegated to task teams

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Robert Grace is co-founder of M&C Saatchi Abel and its Head of Strategy. He attended the IUCN Conservation Congress in Marseille.

Responding to the climate crisis is not a strategy or plan that can be delegated to a department or task team; it needs to be mandated across the organisation. Very simply, what are you doing to rethink everything you do against a climate emergency lens? The decisions you make will not just be assessed against an environmental scorecard, but against a moral one too.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille that “there is no vaccine for a sick planet”. This is a wake-up call we all need to heed. The IUCN Congress, held in early September, was the biggest gathering of scientists and conservation experts tackling issues relating to the climate emergency we all face.

I’m not a scientist. I am a communication strategist. And Macron’s words were perfectly and precisely chosen. In the face of a global pandemic, the behaviour and attitudes of billions of people have been shifted as we rallied behind a common goal to defeat a pandemic, with many billions – myself included – grateful for a vaccine that very simply means we are likely to survive. And get back to life as normal.

But tackling the climate emergency and the health of our planet isn’t going to come from some new vaccine to make it all better. It is going to require global and aligned effort, which will predominantly need to be driven by governments and business. But every person on the planet has a role to play. And we’re running out time. The overarching message from the congress was clear: we need to act now.

If the global pandemic has shown us anything, it is our ability to act swiftly when needed. When we commit. One can’t help but feel that in South Africa we don’t yet have the levels of commitment that are needed to play our part in tackling the environmental crises. And as the continent’s biggest polluter (mostly as a result of our reliance on coal) we need serious commitment.

And so every sector of government and business in South Africa needs a plan and the necessary action to contribute to a collective effort. For too long the environmental agenda and message has been a separate one for businesses. But the climate emergency agenda isn’t solely an environmental one. It is one that our livelihoods depend on. More than half of the global economy is directly linked to nature – an enlightening and significant finding from a study that was revealed at the IUCN congress. If we don’t act now, the impact on all our lives will be significant not just environmentally, but economically too.

What can we do? The significance and scale of the challenge can leave one feeling insignificant in the fight, or simply that it is something that someone else will take care of. Like wearing masks and getting vaccinated, we can apply our collective effort in bringing about change as well as demanding it. 

When David Attenborough took to Instagram to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis, his very first post said that while we know what to do, we just need the will to do it. He went on to point out that “saving our planet is now a communications challenge”. This post saw the 94-year-old become the fastest person to reach a million followers on the social media platform.

So, in the face of this complex, and often abstract, challenge, how do we tackle it? It needs simpler messaging, that is both personal and motivating. If I had to offer an approach to take I would simplify it into three areas.

The first, before any action, is the act of being conscious. Truly recognising that every thing we produce or consume in whatever shape or form has a direct or indirect link to the environment. And to simply ask: is this doing good, or doing damage?

The second is then about contextualising the action that is needed when it comes to what we produce and consume. And while we need extreme action, I don’t think extremist views are useful. Just take the blanket anti-plastic narrative; of course our dependence and excessive use of plastic continues to cause significant damage.

But there are times where its use is completely justified until other options are viable – for instance the billions of vaccines transported and administered around the world probably required a fair amount of plastic. And in many places around the world bottled water is the only sure way of getting clean, safe water (and yes, a more sustainable solution is needed in all these instances). But the point is extremist views are not helpful or motivating for the majority. Perhaps a simpler way into this conversation and to take action is to frame our consumption around areas where we can cut back on excessive consumption, where we can replace it with more sustainable choices and then in time where we reimagine new solutions (just like Elon Musk did with Tesla).

And lastly, especially in business, this is not a strategy or plan that can be delegated to a department or task team. It needs to be mandated across the organisation. Very simply, what are you doing to rethink everything you do against a climate emergency lens? Now, you can either approach this in a reactionary way only seeing short-term sacrifice for what may be an intangible result, or rather see this as an opportunity. Businesses that accelerate a move to a low carbon and sustainable “blue economy” (as it is being termed) stand to gain not just an advantage, but also the buy-in from increasingly environmentally aware and demanding customers.

There is a fast-growing consciousness around our behaviour and actions as they relate to the climate emergency. And the decisions you make will not just be assessed against an environmental scorecard, but a moral one too.

So the simple question that we really need to be asking and answering is: What am I doing?

Don’t take too long to answer this. As the global luxury group LVMH so poignantly noted at the congress “we don’t have the luxury to wait”. OBP/DM

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