Reorient sustainability for greater relevance and impact


The ever-expanding sustainability agenda has been impressive in its reach but limited in its actual impacts. To date, this agenda has consisted of a series of distinct, largely top-down policy initiatives (climate change, deforestation, corporate governance and financial risk management), each with its own constituency rather than carefully integrated solutions and more simply transmitted which could attract a greater number of people.

The current sustainability narrative (see my December column) and the coalition supporting it have limited potential to expand its influence. In fact, resistance to existing proposals, such as the Biden administration’s Build Back Better initiative, continues to escalate, and its proponents have done a poor job of communicating its societal benefits. If opponents of greenhouse gas controls and other sustainable development policies win elections in 2022 and beyond, they will seek to dismantle federal, state and local initiatives. We have to take them at their word.

The global sustainability community must reorient itself for an era of even greater environmental, societal and political challenges.

What is there to do? The global sustainability community must reorient itself for an era of even greater environmental, societal and political challenges. Four basic strategies should be adopted which can be consolidated into one integrated action plan. These include:

Audiences are consumers and voters, not policy makers and the media. The messages are personal relevance and quality of life, not process and science. Public Opinion Research Papers growing awareness of climate change and other risks. This awareness has not significantly changed the behavior of consumers or voters. Indeed, climate change is less and less a debate about facts.

“In a study of 56 countries,” writes Katherine Hayhoe, recently appointed chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, “researchers found that people’s views of climate change were most strongly correlated not with education and knowledge, but rather with values, ideologies, world opinions and political orientation”. To a large extent, sustainability advocates represent a coalition of like-minded people within academia, business, governmental and non-governmental organizations. Their mantra is “follow the science” and their playground is national and international political processes that few people understand or participate in.

A larger political coalition, centered on revitalization and security, is within reach. Over the past month, the West Virginia Coal Miners Union has declared support for the Build Back Better proposals. Their motivation was twofold: the legislation extends economic and medical benefits to miners with black lung disease (associated with longer-term occupational exposures from working in coal mines) and it provides funding to adapt the economics of the state to new energy technologies.

Last year America had a total of 11,400 workers in the coal industry. West Virginia miners seek to secure a post-coal economic future for themselves, their families, and their communities and are more likely to listen to and support political leaders and proposals that can deliver a quality of life based on new opportunities for economic security.

Similar opportunities for expanding sustainability support exist through strengthening national and homeland security, an issue of direct concern to current and former military and civilian security officials. Faith communities through the values ​​associated with “stewardship of the land” represent a growing voice within evangelical communities and other faith communities. And many civic associations are increasingly turning their attention to the localized impacts of climate change and economic revitalization.

These and other coalition-building opportunities can be developed to maximize the voice and influence of citizens previously unconnected to the national and international debate on sustainability. They offer the added benefit of already having active grassroots networks that can speak directly to local, state, and federal officials.

A commitment to social justice and equality must become central to the promise of sustainability to society. Currently, women, people of color and other minorities are grossly underrepresented in the ranks of corporate leadership, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and other institutions presenting themselves as supporters of sustainability. This disenfranchisement has led to research that largely assesses the pollution risks of white communities rather than high-risk minority residential areas; allows polluting industries and facilities to continue to be allowed in low-income neighborhoods; and tolerates the persistence of environmental and social injustices as well as the low educational achievement and the increase in morbidity and mortality that they engender.

Given the ongoing social and demographic transformations in Western societies, the sustainability community risks not only perpetuating this misdirection of public priorities, but also its own marginalization from societal voices calling for more aggressive actions to address the past and present injustices.

Private sector investment remains the key to economic transformations for a more sustainable future. The public investments underway in China, the European Union and the United States for the revitalization of key energy and transport infrastructure are impressive, but they are very small compared to what the private sector will ultimately allocate to remain competitive and viable in changing markets. Corporate decision-making can also move at a faster pace than government-funded projects with its more complex and conflicting budgeting, authorization and prioritization processes.

The sustainability community will also have to grapple with the reality that the multi-generational effort required to mitigate and adapt to climate change is likely to transform the reputations and roles of many existing businesses. If there is a breakthrough in the supply of green hydrogen at market scale, for example, the most likely suppliers will be the same fossil fuel companies whose emissions are currently worsening climate impacts. If such a scenario plays out, climate advocates should seize the opportunity to partner with companies offering a new set of solutions, while seeking broader greenhouse gas controls.

What’s at stake? During the 1960s and 1970s, the American and European environmental movements built a broad political coalition that enjoyed sustained public influence and support over several decades, manifested in legislative actions, regulatory demands, and decisions broadly favorable justice. In the United States, the environmental sustainability movement has seen its political influence wane in recent years amid a politically divided Congress and more adverse court rulings. This outcome has led to a greater reliance on administrative actions and supportive policies by the Biden (and previously Obama) administration, an inherently vulnerable development as evidenced by the hostile actions of the Trump presidency.

A more ominous and rapidly approaching danger is the West Virginia v. EPA case that will be heard and decided in this year’s session of the United States Supreme Court. While they initially focused on Obama’s clean energy plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, the issues before the court have the potential to extend to the power of any energy agency. issue regulations in the absence of specific direction from Congress. Current case law is based on the belief that in the absence of legal guidance, courts should defer to executive decisions. A reversal of this precedent by the Supreme Court will overturn the edifice of many environmental and regulatory laws of the past four decades and torpedo essential elements of the sustainable development agenda, including climate change.

Even if this dire scenario does not occur, efforts to implement the current set of sustainability proposals face a more difficult climb. Advancing sustainability will require a mindset similar to that of waging the Cold War or expanding civil rights. These are multi-generational challenges that require focus, commitment, funding and broad advocacy based on endless coalitions.

Coupled with an ability to make pragmatic commitments among a multitude of issues competing for attention, success will require an expanded base of grassroots support from all age groups as well as more diverse and inclusive leadership that is more representative of society as a whole. Nothing less than the future of the planet is at stake.


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