We’ve long been interested in how teams and team leaders in organizations can most effectively contribute to ending the climate crisis. How do we need to change our practices? What can we do that will have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time?

With the UN Climate Change Conference—aka COP26—in Glasgow, we reached out to Paul Hawken to address this question. Hawken is an author and environmentalist who last month published Regeneration, a manifesto for ending the climate crisis through collective action. It, and a related website, catalog solutions, from regenerative agriculture to the 15-minute city. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

We’re interested in how workplaces need to be transformed. What sort of workplace transformation can contribute to ending the climate crisis?

The transformation needs to be one of permeability and learning, a workplace that’s wide open to what’s happening in the biosphere and society as opposed to one that blindly swears fealty to a static business model.

Once I served as a plenary speaker at Oracle to talk about the climate crisis. It was CIOs, and they were there because of the latest software releases for supply chain management, which is an incredibly complex task for big companies. My first question to the audience was, ‘How many of you don’t believe in climate science or global warming?’

I would say, out of 2,000-3,000 people, maybe a hundred raised their hand. I said, ‘Whatever you think is cool with me. I’m not here to judge you in any way, so let me ask the question again.’ A lot more people raised their hand.

I said, ‘Well, this wasn’t a trick question, but every single person in the room should have raised your hand because climate science is not a belief system. It’s evidentiary. You work with data, not with belief. If you went into your CEO and said, ‘I have this hunch that we should delay this shipload of containers with X, Y, and Z for our stores,’ you’d be fired because believing is not your job.’ What is happening to the earth today, the impact of an increasingly disruptive climate upon societies, economics and business, was predicted three decades ago. It is climate science. It’s not about believing. It’s about physics and biophysics.

It is crucial that the workplace be learning-based, where everyone can listen to points of view and ways of understanding that may challenge the business model, or that don’t subscribe to corporate communications and advertisements. You want to have everyone’s ears and minds open and available today.

Are there specific things that people who are not in roles with the word ‘sustainability’ in their titles can do as part of the organizations that they work for?

An organization needs to create a context in which the job title of sustainability is irrelevant. It’s everybody’s job description, because sustainability is about the whole of the company. It’s about continuing into the future and how to do it.

The reason you invest in a corporation is because it is investing in the future. Why would you buy the shares if that wasn’t true? Investing in the future and ensuring that the corporation has that sensibility is everybody’s job. It’s not a division or title on a door.

Sustainability is not my favorite word because it’s sort of a weasel word. It can mean anything. You need more definitive descriptions of what the goal and purpose of a company is and what the context is in which it operates. Is the company prepared and adaptive to the world that’s coming? Is the company open to understanding the coming world? Or is it hidebound, based on past history because it’s worked so far and the balance sheet and share price are fine?

We are in an era of rapid external change—socially, culturally, biologically, biospherically and atmospherically. Sustainability should be everybody’s job description if that’s the word you’re going to use. I would use regeneration. Doing less harm is insufficient. The task at hand is to bring the world back to life.

Is there a link between fair treatment of individuals in workplaces and ending the climate crisis?

Yes. Fairness and justice are the bedrock of addressing the climate crisis. If there’s not those qualities within a company, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s going to have a tin ear to the rest of the world.

Brilliance, imagination, and ideation are within everybody; it’s there on all levels, not just in R&D or leadership. All people can have ideas that are helpful, that change processes and outcomes, and that imagine new products and services. We are moving into a profoundly disruptive era of business as unusual. The workplace needs to be agile and open-minded.

You want to engage everybody to figure out how to make a better company, a different company, a more innovative company. The only way to do that is for everyone inside the company to feel included. Inclusion means feeling a sense of being honored; feeling that it’s a fair and just company that isn’t overcompensating certain people; a feeling that there is inclusion on all levels, not only in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual preference, but also in terms of points of view and ways of understanding the world. What I hear and see over and again are employees who say the c-suite doesn’t get it. Look at Facebook.

You’ve said that the net-zero emissions plans of companies are ‘totally insufficient.’ What is the right approach?

They are insufficient because:

  1. Even if we achieve net zero in 2050 there will be climate chaos given what we know about the global heating.
  2. The entire world would have to hit that target, not just big corporations who are committing to the goal. There are 213 million companies in the world. So far 201 companies have made a net-zero commitment.
  3. The only path to a more stable and livable climate is to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. That should be the commitment.
  4. There are no incentives or penalties in place to ensure compliance.
  5. It assumes that carbon dioxide is the problem. Protecting life on earth is the deeper issue, and net zero takes for granted that existing business models and overconsumption may continue.
  6. Net-zero commitments employ the purchase of offsets in almost all cases, rather than zeroing out a company’s actual emissions. Only 5% of current offsets sequester carbon. The rest either protect an existing forest or ecosystem or are payments for activities that would have occurred due to regulations or other reasons.

Net-zero commitment is not particularly inspiring. There’s no narrative in “zero.” It’s abstract. I’m not saying that commitments won’t be internally tracked in companies. I’m sure they will. However, it is so far into the future that it will get lost in the national or global climate dialogue and reporting.

Does ending the climate crisis require ‘de-growth’? That’s to say, is it possible to keep growing the economy and still end the climate crisis?

It requires a re-imagination of what growth means. Do we need to create a lot more stuff for the privileged? No, they have too much stuff already and they know it. Do we need to increase what the 4.3 billion people living in impoverished conditions have? Yes, absolutely. Do we need to restore 2 billion acres of degraded land on earth? Yes. That’s one of hundreds of growth opportunities that is needed. That’s jobs. That’s economic activity. Can we create an economy that is healing the world instead of stealing the world? Yes. We can.

Read the full transcript of our conversation, which includes discussion of what regeneration is and how organizations and individuals can use punch lists in approaching the climate crisis.

Buy a copy of Regeneration. Read a guide to what employees can do to accelerate climate action in the workplace. Read a new report detailing the emissions footprint of daily consumer activities.

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