How is your organisation discussing and describing the current climate situation? Is it a climate change or a climate crisis? Are you even discussing it at all? Over the last year there has been a radical shift in public opinion on climate crisis. Extreme weather events, the rise of the school climate strike movement, Extinction Rebellion and yet another devastating David Attenborough television programme – ‘Climate Change – the facts’ have all contributed to this shift. The facts have not changed, but public opinion has. It is likely that legislation will swiftly follow – is your company ready for the shift? How do we take corporate action on such a large and complex issue?
As lawyers we know the language matters. Many of us have encountered the myths and legends of our profession; of the multi-million pound litigation that turned on the placement of a comma or the meaning of ‘if’. I still remember from my training days the senior lawyer who aggressively insisted on doing the first draft of a clause or agreement so they got to set the opening language for the negotiation. Equally, I remember the first time I was chastised by a supervisor for replacing every instance of ‘he’ in a contract with ‘she’. My argument, that I’d defined it as gender neutral in the boilerplate section, made surprisingly little impact. It should therefore come as no surprise to lawyers that language matters both outside and inside our laws and contracts.
Which is why it is interesting to discuss how we talk about climate change or climate crisis inside our organisations and businesses. The scientific consensus on the negative and severe impacts of climate change are very well known at this point. So well known that, back in May 2019, the Guardian announced that it was changing its style guide and would prioritise the phrases ‘Climate Crisis, Climate Breakdown and Climate Emergency’ over ‘Climate Change’. This approach has been the subject of both praise and censure. Is it truth telling or scaremongering? But debate over how we talk about climate change has been raging in academic circles for far longer.
Changing the language matters, because climate change is relatively neutral as a description whereas climate crisis is not. Climate crisis casts the situation as something both urgent and negative and furthermore, something which requires action. As the climate activist Greta Thunberg has said ‘I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is’. ‘Crisis’ is, of course, the language associated with climate activism which can be alienating to those who do not consider themselves activists. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that climate change has the character of a crisis and that action is required across industry and society alike.
Shifting internal perspectives and when to shift them is a vital part of long-term planning for companies, allowing them to predict and adapt early to new conditions.
In December 2017 the BBC aired the final episode of Blue Planet II, a programme which highlighted the severity of plastic pollution. It was shocking and almost overnight there was a huge and significant backlash against ‘single use plastic’, the shockwaves of which are still being felt. The UK Government has announced it is banning items such as plastic drinking straws and cotton buds from April 2020, and the European Parliament has passed legislation intended to ban single use plastics in the EU by 2021. These changes will have a sudden and expensive impact in parts of the retail industry. However, the existence of a major problem with plastic pollution was not a new issue in December 2017. Companies whose business model was (and is) heavily dependent on single use plastics were caught out by a change in public opinion, they were not caught out by a change of facts. Companies who can think ahead of the issues will be in a much better position that those having to merely react to them.
Both in the case of single-use plastic and climate change, a crisis is a challenge to act and action usually means an investment of either time or money or both.
The financial imperatives to push such costs into future years (preferably indefinitely) are powerful ones. But the change in the climate is also costing businesses today. In 2018 the United Kingdom faced the Beast from the East and a prolonged drought and heatwave. Weather is not climate but extreme weather events of all sorts are increasingly likely as the climate changes and have a physical impact on business. It is still unclear how much these events cost the UK but the Beast from the East alone was estimated to have reduced the output of the UK’s economy by £1bn a day (according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research).
The link between extreme weather events and climate change is now well established, we can expect more extreme weather and more resulting costs as the years go by. These are categorised as the physical risks of climate change but there will also be transitional risks. These are the costs of the anticipated legislation and regulation that governments will likely enact in the coming years – similar to the new laws concerning single use plastics. There are also other risks from insurers and lenders who are now making climate-based decisions on their services and the prospect of further disruption from groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Influencing legislation is likewise growing more complex in these uncertain political times. Climate change in particular is an issue which is galvanising calls for citizens assemblies and although it is currently unclear how influential they will be, they are being recommended by everyone from Extinction Rebellion to parliamentary committees. How corporates participate in that process may require a more nuanced and multi-faceted approach based on multiple relationships both vertically and horizontally across the political landscape.
How we are characterising these risks factors greatly in our perception of them; from the language used by decision makers, down to how you name a steering committee. The words we choose to use could have a significant impact on how quickly and how effectively organisations adjust their businesses models to face the future.