As a professional working on climate change, you may find yourself faced with an uncomfortable challenge - people are looking at you, probably paying you, to present them with your expertise and to 'deal with' or 'address' the problem - yet, we are operating in a field where easy answers are hard to come by.
If they were - well, we probably wouldn't be in this situation.
There are various possible responses to this.
One of them is elaborating on the problem. If we can firm up the data around the problem, if we can create a BASELINE before we move on to actions, if we can make a solid assessment of where we're at so we at least know what we're dealing with - all those things can't be a bad idea. And they make perfect sense.
The second possible response is RESEARCH. We can commission reports and investigations in what other people, elsewhere, have so far firmed up and found out and create a solid overview for ourselves as to what our possible options for responses are. As complex as the topic matter may be, there have been plenty of good people working on this for quite some time. Getting an overview of best practice is - of course - also a good idea.
A third potential pathway is to start with the obvious. We know what some of the elephants in the room are that we have to tackle: our in-house carbon emissions. Our transport fleet. The energy efficiency of our buildings. Maybe even our own ISO certifications. What falls under BEST PRACTICE or into the 'it would be rude and hypocritical not to' category is also an pretty straight forward approach. And we need to look at that.
And then, there's the unfortunately still so important task of creating AWARENESS around the problem. The lobbying, the endless meetings and conversations with internal and external stakeholders to ensure everyone really understands the complexity, depth and breadth of the problem and in some way shape or form makes it their own. In fact, a very recent survey by Oxygen Consulting has found that sustainability professionals spent 60% of their time influencing and only 40% of time implementing.
All of that together is enough to keep you more than busy, particularly considering that your team - and your budget - were probably already too small before COVID - let alone now.
It is also a very solid recipe for frustration and despair.
Because here is the thing: While we're doing all this important work around getting a better understanding of the problem, of figuring out where we're at and creating a baseline and keeping an eye on the rapid developments around the world in this area and working on our next annual report or strategy - all the while running around championing and cheering (and sometimes, let's be honest: pleading) - the clock doesn't stop. We're still burning fossil fuels at the highest rate in human history and despite all of our hard work, we're barely managing to make a dent. Meanwhile, the feedback loops are accelerating and every passing day the permafrost may be melting a little bit more, releasing that little bit more methane that - at scale - may well outweigh our hard earned CO2 reductions if only we were able to accurately measure all of that.
It can drive you crazy (and yes, I've got an article about that coming as well).
But what can you do?
Here's an idea (and it may be a bit uncomfortable).
Ask (the right) questions.
The reason why this may be uncomfortable is because as the hired expert, you have skin in the game. People are paying you for answers and solutions, right - not to have a hypothetical conversation?
It's critical to provide solutions - as far as possible, see above.
But what if we're missing something major, something essential? What if we are actually a bit too much like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights? What if we were able to stop running if we could just easily skip sideways to get away from that beam?
The big question that is missing from all of this is: WHAT DO WE WANT?
As in: What do we REALLY want?
Aside from all the climate data, the uncertainty, the resistance, the budget constraints... we have to ask beyond the surface.
Yes, we want to reduce our carbon emissions (do we? Or is it a SHOULD?)
But what for? What do we really want? And why?
Truth is: reducing carbon is B-O-R-I-N-G (at least for most people). It's uninspiring. And it's inconvenient and, likely, expensive. So no wonder we're dragging our feet.
Yet, there's another truth - and that is, that, when given the opportunity, NONE of us wants to knowingly and willingly f*ck up our collective planetary future. None of us want to take away our grand children's chance to THRIVE. We just by way of cognitive dissonance accept that as a collective outcome of our combined activity which we feel powerless about. The tragedy of the commons.
Yet, what we really WANT are all good things, at the end of the day: make sure everyone is doing well, is looked after. At least those around us. We just happen to have chosen an unfortunate strategy and now we're caught in it's trajectory.
The uncomfortable thing is this: if we as sustainability leaders can hold off the solutions for long enough and dig deep enough to uncover the REAL answers to those questions, we may well find that we can enroll everyone else really EASILY into coming up with entirely new strategies to achieve those goals.
While we were focusing on the 'REDUCTION TARGET' we forgot that that's not ACTUALLY the target.
The target is wellbeing. The target is LIFE. The target is taking our kids for a walk in the mountains on the weekend and still seeing wildlife abound. The target is to MATTER. To be surrounded by people we love, to experience community and belonging. The target is to contribute something of meaning, to be remembered. The target is to feel SAFE and SECURE. The target is to ENJOY and appreciate life.
And for your organisation as a collective - isn't there a similar target? Yes, it may look like it's all about shareholder return - but how much deeper can we dig? What does that actually mean? How many ways are there to achieve that? And how do those returns EMBED into the rest of the world? When was the last time we have had that conversation with the individuals - the PEOPLE - concerned - and really heard WHY we need those returns? What are the dreams that fuel this requirement? What do they REALLY WANT?? What do WE really want?
In amongst all the busy work (which, yes, is important too) - don't neglect asking the right questions.
As humans we are wired to focus on the problem. It's what has kept us alive. It was the ancestors that walked through the jungle and looked out for tigers instead of smelling the flowers that lived long enough to reproduce.
But our human progress was always fueled by the dreamers. The visionaries. The people who created the invisible and made it visible. The people who asked "What else is there?" "How could this be made better?" "What do we want instead?" "What is the right thing to do?" - and kept asking until the answers came.
And the most powerful answers come from our collective genius, from our shared creativity and ingenuity - if we can manage to draw our minds away from the problem for long enough to engage that other side of our brain.
We can't create a great future if we can't imagine it first.
As leaders today, we have to lead with, love and embrace the questions.
What the result of this will be? - I don't know. That's my point.
Natalie works with sustainability leaders and change makers on maximizing their impact, increasing their influence and maintaining their sanity as leaders of the most important transition in human history. You can connect with her via firstname.lastname@example.org or www.imaginal.co.nz