Fast Like Flash

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

My youngest child adores the superhero Flash. He slips a felt mask over his eyes and has me run around after him, feigning exhaustion and the inability to keep pace with his three-year-old legs. He is enamored with the idea of superspeed.

After reading the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in late March, it seems we all must be. The IPCC found as a baseline that we are on track to exceed 2 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century. How far we exceed it depends on what we do over the next two decades.

The report discusses two gaps. The first is an ambition gap—even if we meet individual countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement for greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030, models show we would still experience 2.8 degrees of warming by 2100. In other words, the world hasn’t yet set stringent enough targets to keep to 2 degrees.

lightning bolt superhero style

The second is an implementation gap—even if we successfully carry out the policies that had been put in place by the end of 2020, we will fall short of the targets. In other words, the world hasn’t fully operationalized the NDC goals.

Thus the report concludes that we need to move faster if we are going to limit climate change to levels we hope will avoid the most devastating impacts. If only we had a button to initiate Flash-like superspeed.

One aspect of moving faster is accelerating processes and operations. Reducing delays, increasing efficiencies, and other similar mechanisms. We must do that. But I propose that another aspect of accelerating climate action involves taking a hard look at our relationship with—and our definition of—failure.

Solving the climate crisis isn’t a single-variable endeavor. The point is to safeguard the future health, safety, and prosperity of all, and that involves re-weaving a global web of interconnected factors. Nothing about it is simple.

Facing that complexity, plus the need to move at superspeed, it’s inevitable that we’re going to get things wrong. We’re going to think (and already have) that a technology has more promise than it does, that we have legal authorities that are called into question. Right now, when that happens, not only can we be slow to change course, but also a great deal of attention gets paid to perceived failure.

But Ty Cobb missed the majority of times he went up to bat, and still holds the batting average record. What if we follow that example. What if we redirect the energy that we spend trying to select the most perfect solutions, and instead focus on developing processes that are quicker to adapt, so that it’s easier to test deployment of the widest range of possibilities. Adaptive management that allows us to try, monitor, and—if something isn’t yielding significant benefits, and certainty if it’s causing harm—stop and move to the next. Most of all, to see that nimbleness as success, not failure.

This requires governance systems that strike a challenging balance between providing sufficient certainty to attract investment while maintaining adequate flexibility to pivot when appropriate. I’m not suggesting that’s easy. But just like my kid, I’m trying to find the secret to superspeed—and I think one ingredient lies not with eradicating stumbles, but being better at getting back up.

This blog originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of The Environmental Forum and is reprinted with permission.