There has never been a more pressing moment to think critically about climate change. We spoke to Chief Member Dr. Ayana Johnson, marine biologist and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, teacher and New York Times bestselling author, to better understand the issues at stake, and how we can make a difference as business leaders.

Ayana and Katharine recently co-edited a book, All We Can Save, which features essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement. This conversation was moderated by Chief Member Jennifer Gootman.

Q. I want to start with an important, but rarely asked question: What specifically needs to be done in the climate movement?

Dr. Katherine Wilkinson: The easiest thing to remember is that globally, we have to cut our emissions in half by the end of this decade. And to do that globally means we have to cut emissions by more than half in the United States, because we have caused so much of the problem. Historically, we are the majority responsible, so we’ve also got to be the majority responsible for solutions. What science tells us is that this is going to take a truly radical transformation of every sector of the global economy. And when scientists are telling you that, you know it's really true, because they don't speak in hyperbole. They speak at really grounded facts.

So we've definitely got our work cut out for us. I think a lot about this James Baldwin line, which is that “We made the world we're living in, and we have to make it over.” And we could spend a whole conversation unpacking who the “we” is that's made the world we're living in. But the “we” who has to make the world over is all of us. We really need everyone. We need all the superpowers martialed at once.

Q. What does business as usual look like in terms of climate change, and what’s the impact of operating as we have been?

Ayanna Johnson: Business as usual looks like failure. It looks like what we're seeing now. It looks like the worst case scenarios. This is what has led to incredibly dry, tinderbox conditions across the West coast. It's what's leading to what could be the worst hurricane season on record, and droughts and floods in the Midwest. Our food system, food security, and economy are all tied up in this. So often, we hear from corporations or conservative politicians that it's too expensive to deal with the climate crisis. That is a completely ridiculous thing to say without doing the full cost-benefit analysis that explores what happens when we do nothing. What is the cost of business as usual for your industry? The answer is trillions and trillions of dollars. Business as usual is the scariest thing I can think of, because we are sprinting off a cliff right now. There are so many different solutions that we already have at our fingertips, and we need to be running full tilt toward those.

KW: One thing that’s hard to wrap one's head around is that human beings have never lived on a planet like the one we have now created. Literally the human species has never survived within the conditions in the atmosphere right now. So everything that we take for granted about the current structure of our society hinges on relative climatic stability, and we are racing away from that. And that's only where we already are today. That’s daunting, but the toolbox of solutions is incredibly robust. We're not waiting for Elon Musk to sort this out, nor should we. If we just took the solutions we already have and scaled them in a way that's totally plausible, we could actually get to a turning point where we start to draw down more carbon emissions than we're sending up every year.

Q. What can we start doing right now to be the most effective climate advocates?

AJ: There’s a generic answer and there's a specific answer. The generic answer is you can donate, march, vote, spread the word, and influence your network. Please do all those things. And of course, live in a way that’s light on the planet. But you know, that's only going to get us so far. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, even during those first few months when really no one was traveling and everyone was just hunkered down, carbon emissions only decreased by about 7%. So clearly this is not a solution where just being extremely good about our individual carbon footprint is going to get us in the clear. It’s going to take systems change, policy change, and shifts in corporate practices.

I’ll share a story to clarify what I mean. I recently brought a friend who has never been involved in climate work to a climate rally in Washington, DC. He was excited to see what my world was like, and he thought it was really cool. When it ended, he was like, “Okay, I get it, this is really bad. What do we do next? Do we just, we come back next week?” And my response was clear. I said, “You need to go change your company.” (He's a Vice President at the financial services company, Betterment.) I was like, “I don’t care if you ever march again. Go fix Betterment.”

So he went back and started a sustainable investing fund at Betterment. Then in the wake of this incarnation of the Black Lives Matter movement, he started a justice fund in collaboration with NAACP. The point is that using your power within your organization to make big changes matters so much more than obsessing over, am I allowed to take this plane? Or, do I feel bad about my carbon footprint? I mean, do your best, but please, let's all focus on the big picture. Chief members have a lot of clout. That’s why you’re here. You have a voice and people listen to you. So it’s about making sure that we are leveraging our influence and not letting climate be a “separate issue.” Once we start seeing climate progress as integral to supply chains, balance sheets, corporate risk exposure, insurance rates, PR, marketing, and all the ways in which our brands are at risk, that’s when we have a real chance of turning things around.

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Originally Published: September 25, 2020