The house is burning


India’s monsoon season, 2019 – starting hot and dry.

I’m seeking to educate myself more about the climate change impacts, forecasts and so on. Ever since Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth‘, I’ve had this discomfort way down deep inside. A discomfort that accompanied me on business trips, was resident in me at events, and was a companion during vacation times.

The discomfort resides in the fact that we have known for so long about this issue, yet have done little to slow ourselves down long enough to have a rational discussion and sobering moments-of-truth.

When I was a young kid, around 10 years old or so, there was an ecological push in the US. This was no-doubt spawned in part by the oil crisis of the 1970’s. Bumper stickers were printed and given away, the term ‘recycle’ came briefly into vogue, and even ‘noise pollution’ was raised as an enemy of the people and planet.  That was over forty years ago. *

I carry this discomfort, today, as I look back on my role in leadership development, and the opportunities I probably had to raise this issue further, to be a bit ‘inconvenient’ in my dealings with managers and leaders of various organizations – domestic and abroad.  Truth be told, some of those organizations were well aware and were acting in positive directions – reclaiming water, implementing renewable energy sources, seeking carbon neutrality.  But the vast majority, in my experience, continued to live in bubbles of their own creation – markets that operate (seemingly) outside of the larger sphere of ecological context and consequence.

So I’ve turned to a few sources to educate myself about where we are today.   I should warn any reader that a) I am NOT an expert in this field, and b) I believe in the scientific method (and therefore, I believe in scientists that are not under obligation to any corporate interests).  I am on a continuing journey here, and want to track a few things.

How bad is it?

David Wallace-Wells was interviewed by Joe Rogan.**  This is a long interview, so I suggest getting a cup of tea to settle in.  His book, The Uninhabitable Earth, is on the shelves now, and paints a stark picture of a 1.5 – 2.0 degree Celsius change in temperatures, and, even worse, the current destination of a 4.0 degree Celsius change.  Ultimately, it comes down to those of us in this generation (my kids’ generation) to take bold steps to shift things in order to ensure a healthy existence for all.

In a response to Wallace-Wells’ book, scientists at The Ecologist wrote an open letter praising his work, but also counseling that we may have even less control than we think, and that the future will be one of ‘deep adaptation’.  This is terribly interesting, and terrifying as we think about our systems in play today – business, economic, political, social, etc. – that all revolve around existing models of what is valued.

It is this systemic responsibility that, in part, created this discomfort I have carried for so long.  Year after year witnessing managers and leaders fine-tune their approaches to marketing, sales, innovation, customer relationships, product development, change management, strategic thinking – all while in a bubble of true or self-imposed ignorance of the irrefutable facts of climate change and what it means for all of us.

How do I know this?

It was eight years ago that two retired oil company executives asked me to review a letter they were intending to share with the board of that company.   It was, in effect, their call-to-action to effect policy changes immediately in order to (hopefully) stem the impact of their industry on the health and safety of the world.  In that conversation, and in other research that was done, it is clear that the company in question had known, not for eight years, but for twenty years that their industry was the chief contributor to an irreversible and disastrous series of climate impacts.

So, forty years ago we had our first wave of awareness-raising around air pollution, water pollution and even noise pollution.  For at least thirty years, key contributors have known of their own responsibility in the destruction of the environment.  So where are we now?

Who could possibly oppose efforts to save the planet?

Well the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US has their list of those that, today, are opposing efforts such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.  This plan was tabled immediately after Donald Trump took office, in February of 2016.  Perhaps not surprisingly, three large energy companies (coal, oil), the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), and the US Chamber of Commerce are the top five on their list.  Please follow the link above if you want some insight into how these organizations have obstructed change and mislead the American public.

Well if it’s a global issue, which nations are the top offenders?

The World Atlas published a review in 2017 with this chart, with percent share of global CO2 emissions on the Y axis:


It is interesting to note that, from a population standpoint, both China and India have over 1 billion people, while the US has about a third of that (330 million).  So the U.S. is cranking out way more than our fair share of pollution.

Let’s get more specific:  Which companies are the largest offenders?

The CDP and the Climate Accountability Institute published a report (The Carbon Majors Report) in 2017 that lists the 100 companies that produced the highest greenhouse gasses from 1988 to 2015.  The top 10 are oil and coal companies.  In fact, the top 20 are oil and coal companies.

Each of these companies has leaders.  Those leaders are humans (for now).  They likely have children, and grand-children.

I know that many companies have now come public with targets for moving to renewable energy sources, carbon-neutral footprints, investments in carbon capture technologies, and so on.

But this fire did not just start.  The house – our house – has been burning for decades, from a slow smolder to what is now feeling like an uncontrollable blaze.  As David Wallace-Wells said, it is my generation that has created the majority of the greenhouse gasses that are now in the atmosphere.  For other tail-end baby-boomers and Gen-x’ers out there, this has happened in our lifetime.

What can we do?

  • Divest from any company that is fighting regulations that would help slow consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Consume less stuff.  It takes energy to create products and transport them.
  • Buy local.  Less transportation – less energy expended.
  • Invest in renewables.
  • Vote for politicians who believe in science.
  • Stay informed – through evidence-based research.

*Neil Young – After the Gold Rush.  1970  – Lyrics later changed from “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s” to “… in the 20th century”.  Sadly, another change to the lyrics is needed.

** Updated June 2022: I do not subscribe to any of Joe Rogan’s feeds or posts.  I simply found the interview with the climatologist compelling.

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