Defend Truth


It’s time to face a future of global heating and focus our energy on adaptation


Peter Willis is the former South African Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, where he worked closely with many corporate leaders in Africa and globally. His now a Senior Associate of The Resilience Shift, working with a group of climate leaders to understand what climate change is now uniquely demanding of leadership. He lives in Cape Town.

Climate change is arguably the first truly global existential challenge our species has had to face. Might it also happen to be the kind of stimulus we need to shift to the emerging idea that we are in fact one family dependent on one planetary home?

I am a change agent by inclination and some 20 years ago I became seized with the implications of what climate scientists were showing us. I started working to wake up senior executives in the private and public sectors to both the science and its implications for the people and organisations they led.

Today I look around the world and see that the tribe of others engaged in the same endeavour — scientists, communicators, campaigners, innovators, entrepreneurs, advisers and more — is large, sophisticated and vocal. I am writing this to them because I think it may be time for us to do some self-reflection and re-appraise our central narrative.

What is obvious now that wasn’t obvious 20 years ago is that climate change is not “a problem” for which we can find “the solution”. Nowadays I see it instead as a predicament, like death, which, for all our reluctance, we have to come to terms with, but which we certainly cannot “solve”.  

At the same time, I think of it as perhaps the most powerful mirror that the Earth holds up to us to show us how we are doing in our ongoing relationship with her. I look into that mirror, curious to decipher the myriad clues it must hold as to how we might conceivably patch up this central relationship.

Yet my sense of the central argument that both I and my tribe have for so long deployed with such gusto and stamina to the powerful and the unconverted is that it continues to frame climate change as a challenge to be overcome, a problem we can and therefore must resolve. The core of the argument has typically gone like this:

  1. Here is some new scientific data produced by reputable scientists. It adds to the mountain of similarly high-calibre, compelling scientific data already published. It indicates a trend of accelerating volatility and instability in the Earth system.
  2. This trend will continue of its own accord unless we humans change our behaviour quickly and at scale.
  3. If we don’t, and following it to its logical conclusion, the trend will clearly end badly for us. Based on expert modelling of the future, I offer you some likely catastrophic outcomes at rounded dates like 2050 or 2100, for example 50% more intense storms or 10m sea level rise.
  4. I want you to be frightened (like I am) when you follow that trend line into the future and contemplate those selected catastrophic outcomes, supplemented by current news stories and video footage of extreme weather events around the world. I want you to be frightened enough to want to change your and your institution’s strategies, policies and behaviour. (Where else will your motivation come from, I think to myself, if not from fear?)
  5. But I don’t want you to be frightened to the point of paralysis or denial. So, I tell you about some of the things that can be done to help change that trend line – for example x, y & z. Some of these are already being done, although on too small a scale. Yes, they cost money, so right now we should focus on the low-hanging fruits, whose cost is modest and, in some cases, may even be net profitable.
  6. It is additionally worth investing in doing x, y & z because they will be stepping stones towards creating a more stable, sustainable and profitable economy, which is surely desirable for you and your children.
  7. However — and this is something I may hesitate to raise directly — in order for x, y & z to be done at sufficient scale and speed, our dominant economic and political systems need to change in some fundamental ways, since their inherent exploitative and competitive drivers have shown themselves to be inimical to the kind of change required if we are to alter that trend line and avoid those catastrophic outcomes.
  8. Yes, it’s a tough ask, but the stakes demand it, and I can point you to leaders elsewhere who have committed to making these changes and these investments.
  9. Meanwhile, I must point out that the window of opportunity for us to affect that trend line by our actions is closing fast. But (and this is my punch line, designed to leave you in an upbeat, can-do mood) …we still have time, so let’s get going!

While I still subscribe to steps 1 to 3, I now find what follows after entirely unconvincing. Why? Because it skates past the troublesome fact that, by any objective measure, we are changing course too slowly, thus leaving the listener with the assumption that we can still pull out of our accelerating warming trend.

If I have to choose one data point that undoes this assumption it is this recent graph from the International Energy Agency. It reveals the gap between: 

  1. the speed of CO2 emissions reduction required by science in order to keep warming below 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average;
  2. what nation states have committed to do in response (not enough); and
  3. still further from the scientific requirement, what nation states are putting into law and regulation (even less).

The simple lesson from this graph, which should not surprise us, is that our economic and political institutions are proving resistant to change that would favour the widest common good at the expense of what are perceived to be national or investor interests. This inevitably means that we will not meet our stated goal. Global average temperature will soon cross the 1.5°C threshold the world set as a target at the Paris COP in 2015, and we can expect much more extreme weather.

I believe it is important, for ourselves and for those we speak to and wish to influence, that we acknowledge this failure, if only to ensure our main narrative includes this challenge reality, supported as it is by the science.

Curiously, though our movement is perhaps more deeply founded in science than any other, we seem to find this hard to do. Might it be because we assume, even unconsciously, that if we tell the public our approach has failed, it will seem we are throwing our hands in the air and telling everyone, “Give up! We’re doomed!” and this will be bad for morale?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate anxiety is real. Why talking about it matters

Or is it because, even if we agree that our collective Plan A is failing, until someone has laid out a plausible Plan B, we find it too hard to let go of Plan A? Are we reluctant to take on, even temporarily, the stress of not knowing where best to put our energies?

Whatever the reasons, as a tribe we are not speaking our best and fullest truth if we leave out the bit about having lost the main battle we had hoped to win. I recommend we include it. It might seem humbling — even humiliating — to change our story from one of a possible victory to one of a definite defeat (at least for now).

After all, we have often sounded quite sure of ourselves these past 20 years. We genuinely believed we could rally our fellow humans to intervene in time and we threw ourselves nobly into that effort, but events have proven us wrong.  

So, what do we do once we’ve let go of our original goal? Strange as it may sound, I believe our first task may be to sit for as long as we can manage with whatever discomfort we experience after relinquishing our traditional arguments and motivating assumptions.

In the space we open up — for ourselves personally and for our tribe — we will, I believe, find all that energy, commitment and brilliance flowing into new channels, channels that are invisible to us so long as our gaze is fixed on the goal of staying below 1.5°C.

I don’t yet know for sure what those fresh channels are and maybe we would do well to withhold from assuming we can identify them immediately. But I trust that this space of “not knowing” offers fertile ground in which the seeds of new possibility will surely sprout before long.


The change alluded to above is a journey I have myself made over the last while. I was, for the longest time, deeply anxious about what climate change would bring us, and for years I put my best efforts into deploying that standard argument for mitigation.

But as it gradually dawned on me that the attitudinal and behavioural shift we were calling for was not going to come in time, meaning that global warming would become self-sustaining, I felt I had no option but to surrender to this reality and its implications.

Somewhat to my surprise, although on the surface I was effectively resigning from my long-held job of saving humanity from a catastrophic future, with all the seeming loss of hope and heroic potential that implied, I did not in fact fall into depression or despair.

Quite the opposite. I found a certain lightness in laying aside the planetary-sized goal of avoiding global warming, along with its companion, the wish that people, institutions and things, in general, were different from how they are and were capable of changing on demand.

Having sat with the emptiness and the not knowing that accompanied this acceptance of reality, I eventually started asking myself, “OK, so now what makes sense to do?”.

Here is a part of my current answer:

  • The world will heat up and go on heating up and we will experience more intense and more frequent meteorological shocks. The destruction caused by any of these shocks will be experienced principally by the people who are directly, physically affected. Others around the world might get to hear about and perhaps be emotionally moved by a particular event, and sending help may make perfect sense, but its impact will first and foremost be felt by the local people and other local life forms;
  • There will likely be little or nothing those local people can do to prevent the shock happening, but they will almost certainly be able to do many practical things that can reduce suffering and death as and when the shock arrives. This is the focus of tribe members in the fields of climate resilience and adaptation;
  • We know that people — individually but particularly collectively — often respond to disaster in surprisingly compassionate, pragmatic and altruistic ways. Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating book A Paradise Built in Hell illuminates and documents this counterintuitive truth. Unlike how modern consumer and political culture has us “looking out for ourselves”, it seems that when our backs are suddenly to the wall, most of us want to look after each other. In her words, “horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper”;
  • With shocks and disasters making up more and more of our future experience and while there will be much loss and suffering, I see the potential for these less trumpeted facets of human nature to reveal themselves more and more powerfully. Indeed, I think we can — and perhaps should — expect this; and
  • Helping leaders in government and business to see this as an expectation worth deliberately carrying into our very challenging future, and to work out with them how to foster that pragmatic, compassionate altruism in every community and workplace seems to me like good work that needs doing.

In closing, climate change is arguably the first truly global existential challenge our species has had to face. Might it also happen to be the kind of stimulus we require in order for our collective public consciousness to shift from its hitherto competitive paradigm into one that fully reflects both the scale of our planetary presence and the emerging idea that we are in fact one family dependent on one planetary home?

So long as our narrative was that our late-industrial way of life was threatened by global warming, we thought it made sense to use fear of that loss to motivate for change.

Since that strategy has not worked and we will be thrown together by local disasters, perhaps compassion and care can step forward to take fear’s place. Our tribe may indeed have felt a lot of fear and resorted to using it as a tool of persuasion, but I’ve always understood that deep beneath our fear of loss lies our love for this Earth and the life we’re part of.

Looked at another way, while one can look back on the journey of Homo sapiens and see us having reached advanced adolescence by this point, displaying exceptional capabilities but with an underdeveloped sense of collective (adult) responsibility, perhaps what awaits us as we settle into living with the consequences of our adolescent excesses is a new, challenging and potentially fruitful maturity. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • peter selwaski says:

    CO2 is only 1/25th of ONE PERCENT of the atmosphere. It’s not the dominant molecule. See netzerowatchDOTcom for real data. Solar and wind are unreliable. Go nuclear.

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      Oh shame – such ill-informed confidence!

    • Bennie Morani says:

      The percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere is not the relevant figure. The problem is the effect it has on the environment. Like giving someone a very small amount of poison. The important thing is the strength of the poison. Something a child could understand.
      The problem with nuclear is the time it takes to build. But it should not be ruled out. Research is being done on safe, smaller nuclear technologies.

  • chris butters says:

    So much ignorant rubbish about CO2. Fake news always aims to fool us with irrelevant issues. Yes, it’s only 1/2500th of whatever. Yes, it is harmless to health up to levels of several thousand ppm. Yes, most of it was there long before we started burning fossil fuels. And yes, CO2 helps plant growth. So what? The RELEVANT point is it traps heat in the atmosphere and a “tiny” rise of a few hundred parts per million (ppm) may be enough to raise temperatures by what may sound like a “tiny” two degrees … enough to cause far from tiny problems.
    This fine article correctly notes that ”our dominant economic and political systems need to change in some fundamental ways, since their inherent exploitative and competitive drivers have shown themselves to be inimical to the kind of change required”. But is “pragmatic, compassionate altruism” – the philanthropic capitalism of Bill Gates, Collier etc – remotely likely? Sadly, perhaps the belief that evolution necessarily “advances” from adolescence to maturity, or from idiocy to wisdom, might also be questioned…

  • David Walker says:

    The quickest, cheapest and most effective way of addressing the triple challenge of collapsing biodiversity, increased climate shocks and global poverty is to reduce human population growth to zero as soon as we possibly can.

    • Lesley Young says:

      I agree. Too many people. Too much bread production and consumption (lump of dough grows to loaf size by CO2 given off by yeast). Same for liquor. Check out geological graphs covering the last 500 million years which show the highest temperatures coincide with lowest CO2 levels. Don’t hear much these days about the hole in the ozone layer!

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    I understand what the author is saying, but I see the problem more has how the original 1.5 degree C goal was set. It was set much like limits are set in a manufacturing process: within limits then it passes; and outside the limits it fails. Taguchi introduced a new concept to manufacturing. The Taguchi Loss Function, in essence says any deviation from the target is a problem, and the scale of the problem is a squared function, i.e. twice the deviation is 4 times the problem. Our target should have always been to keep the temperature unchanged, and realised that any deviation gets progressively worse by something like the square of the deviation. This means that moving from 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees is going to be much worse than from 1 degrees to 1.5 degrees and we need to allocate commensurately more resources to mitigate it.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    The earlier comments completely miss the point of the article, which I welcome as a refreshing and promising viewpoint. Its validity has become greatly enhanced by the murderous conflicts that have appalled many of us recently.

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