November 1, 2021
Previously published on Forbes.com
This week, in addition to serious negotiators, many climate groupies have converged upon COP26 in Glasgow. It is an event best described as Burning Man meets policymaking, where whiskey may flow more plentifully than carbon commitments. For the price of an international flight, a lavish hotel and unjustifiable CO2 emissions, the partakers can lament about our doomed planet and its evil corporations with like-minded elitists. And they can feed a prevalent belief: that climate change is the pet project of salon socialists who deserve as much public trust as the autopilot in their Teslas.
This will not do. In lieu of this elitist climate culture, we need realism and empathy. In place of promises that create hype, we need “earthshots” that create jobs. Instead of scattering capital thinly, we need to focus on serious climate solutions.
Lead an Energy Transition with Dignity
To understand why COP26 needs a cultural makeover, consider US Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democrat from West Virginia. He has now thwarted multiple initiatives in the Democrat’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill that would accelerate the US’s delayed energy transition. The convenient explanation is that Manchin represents a coal-rich state, has financial ties to the industry and puts reelection over the planet. Perhaps. But listen carefully to Manchin. He is the political reaction to a sanctimonious climate change culture.
At a National Press Club event earlier this year, Manchin joined Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers of America, a union. Roberts made headlines by supporting an energy transition, as long as it provides “…a future for those people, a future for anybody that loses their job because of a transition in this country, regardless if it’s coal, oil, gas or any other industry for that matter.”
Telling these people they should learn how to code is a heartless response and poor strategy. Resistance to a transition is about more than jobs though. As Manchin added, “I can tell you how West Virginia feels. We feel like returning Vietnam veterans … We’ve done every dirty job you’ve asked us to do. We never questioned. We did it and performed well. And now all of a sudden we’re not good enough, we’re not clean enough, we’re not green enough and we’re not smart enough.”
Manchin is reacting to climate rhetoric that demeans his constituents and threatens their communities. Of course he won’t sign onto climate initiatives under those circumstances. Maybe Manchin is on the wrong side of history, but he demonstrates empathy sorely lacking in the salon socialist milieu.
Create Jobs on the Frontlines of Climate Change
Every country has its Senator Manchin and West Virginia. To bring these communities along in the energy transition, I believe we need to create meaningful jobs that repurpose skills from carbon-intensive industries to the challenges of climate change.
Let’s picture this in the Arctic, one of the frontlines of the climate battle. Forget the 1.5° C and 2° C Paris warming targets. Between 1971 and 2019, average temperatures in the Arctic increased by 3.1° C versus 1° C globally. The melting permafrost is a ticking, methane timebomb. Increases in Arctic lightning threaten to spark more record-setting wildfires and, potentially, cause peat fires that burn underground for years.
The Arctic is therefore an ideal place to create high-paying jobs that reward hands-on skills. For example, the construction workers of Alberta, without oil pipelines to build, could construct life-saving infrastructure instead. That might include systems that mitigate wildfire activity or capture permafrost methane emissions. They could even build pipelines that carry glacial runoff away from Canada’s Mackenzie River—where it accelerates warming—to drought-stricken areas of the US southwest.
Like the hotshot crews that courageously fight wildfires, workers that can fight climate change in dignifying ways, from the Arctic to the Amazon, are sorely needed. While many desk workers struggle to find meaning in their Bullshit Jobs, the climate corps might find purpose in the highest stakes cause since World War II.
Focus on Ambitious yet Practical Solutions
Say climate leaders managed to rally alienated communities back to the cause. And say we had the political will and funding to act ambitiously against emissions. Where would we direct our efforts?
When I was a young McKinsey consultant, we were often tasked with reducing the costs of businesses. Naively, someone would suggest photocopying documents on both sides. In the climate battle, we unironically champion equally frivolous acts, or worse, hype crapshoots disguised as moonshots or earthshots. We need to knock it off and focus.
A crapshoot is certainly a climate conference that expects elected politicians to honor unenforceable climate commitments. A crapshoot is also (most of) the hyped hydrogen economy, which burns fossil fuels to produce hydrogen. That is a ridiculously inefficient way to reduce emissions. The fossil fuel industry only backs hydrogen because it is a way to keep using their existing assets, like pipelines, and avoid stranded costs.
The International Energy Agency reports that investment in clean energy must triple by 2030 if we are to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We’ll need even more investment than that if we fund inane solutions. We need to cut the crap(shoots) and concentrate funding on the most impactful things. These include new forms of affordable, safe and clean energy, like nuclear fusion. These also include affordable electric vehicles and the supporting infrastructure, cheap energy storage and back-up power, clean technologies for heavy industry, carbon capture technologies and a carbon tax.
A New Culture for the Climate Fight
The COP26 elitists underestimate the relationship between inequality and climate action. It’s not coincidental that Squid Game, a fictional Korean TV series about people risking their lives in children’s games to pay off debts, has become the most popular show in Netflix history. When people struggle to make a living wage or imagine a good future, they don’t care what the climate will be like in 30 years. They care about the survival of their loved ones and community.
Top-down, COP-style climate sanctimony is a recipe for resentment, rage and resistance. It is also a sure way to (re)elevate demagogues who undermine democratic institutions.
We need to move from talk to actions that bring everyone—including oil, gas and coal communities—together. I hope COP26 is remembered not for its cocktail parties, but for the moment we realized that saving this planet demands empathy, meaningful jobs and focus.