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Climate Change: Business Must Learn to See Future Uncertainty as Opportunity


James Goodman, Forum for the Future

If you think it’s hard to attribute a flood, a drought or a storm to climate change, try a banking crisis, a social movement or even a war. These are the kinds of consequences that the second part of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, released on Sunday, alludes to. In amongst the analysis of "observed impacts" and "future risks" was this insight:

“Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date.”

They list factors such as: “wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts.” Understanding how climate change alters the rules of the game right across the board will be key to prospering in the years to come.

Climate models are the obvious place to start to understand the implications of climate change, but they are still gross simplifications of a planet full of interconnecting systems, of which the climate system is just one part. They can’t tell us what it will be like to live in the future -- they just tell us what the weather might be like.

The best way of understanding life in the future is to develop scenarios that tell stories about the different possible futures that could emerge – based on long-term trends, emerging patterns of change, and the choices that people make today and in the future. Not narrowing uncertainty by trying to predict, but empowering people to see future uncertainty as opportunity.

Our work with the tea industry shows how this can work in practice. Tea 2030 has brought together companies big and small as well as a range of other critical organizations, we have explored a number of different scenarios for the future of tea, how it could be grown, processed, distributed and consumed, responding to the challenges of climate change, water scarcity and a host of other factors. The conversations have led us as a group to come up with a set of principles the tea sector should follow, and actions that must be taken to secure a sustainable future.

Similar conversations about the future inspired our Glocal project with Ecover on the island of Mallorca. It’s an experiment in building a local, closed loop business model for cleaning products, one that will continue to deliver value in a resource-constrained future.

While it seems a bit crass to suggest, particularly given the massive human suffering being caused right now and which is inevitable in the future, there is a silver lining to the climate change crisis. Climate change is shaking up the systems we rely on for our wellbeing and disruption at this scale opens up huge opportunities for business to create long term value for people in a way that protects or – better – rebuilds our natural capital. Perhaps the next thing to be attributed to climate change will be the start of a business revolution.

Image credit: Flickr/accarrino

James is Director of Futures at Forum for the Future. His role involves working with leading global companies, such as Unilever and Pepsico, to imagine sustainable future business, or with industries such as dairy, retail or the shipping industry to transform entire industries to function more sustainably.

3p Contributor

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