“Don’t manage climate change like you managed Brexit” says Agency head

Elmhurst Energy welcomes the speech from Sir James Bevan of the Environment Agency to the Whitehall and Industry Group and agrees that describing climate change as an “emergency situation” is not overstating the problem, and his parallels with Brexit are just about right.

Sir James suggests that to resolve the issue we need to:

  • “look for the opportunities as well as the risks”

Brexit carries both: we are all seeking to manage down the risks and realise the opportunities. We should treat climate change the same way.

  • Ensure that “if it matters, give it absolute priority”.

What they teach aspiring CEOs at Harvard Business School is this: the main thing is to make sure that the main thing really is the main thing. Brexit has been the main thing for many of us over the last three years. That makes sense: it is both urgent and important, and we have all been right to devote time, resources and energy to getting it right. But if you buy the argument that the main thing is actually climate change, then we all need to be devoting as much effort over the next few years to tackling that as we have devoted over the last few years to Brexit.

  • When “tackling a unique challenge, don’t run it as business as usual.”

The Environment Agency, like the rest of government, the emergency services and local authorities with whom we work, has prepared for a possible No Deal exit as if it were a major incident, with proper contingency planning, incident rooms, mechanisms for real time decision making, etc. Maybe we need similar arrangements for tackling climate change, because climate change is the biggest incident there is.

  • “use reasonable worst case scenarios to stress test your organisation.”

That’s what all our organisations have been doing with a possible No Deal Brexit. We’ve all asked how, if there were disruption to ports and supply chains, economic shocks or civil unrest, we would sustain our operations. Doing that analysis taught us all something about our potential vulnerabilities in other scenarios too, gaps we are all now plugging. The same applies to climate change and its effect on our organisations, with one difference: unlike a No Deal Brexit, we know climate change will happen. If you aren’t already asking how your organisation would cope, why not? And if you aren’t, your Audit and Risk Committee soon will. As will your customers and stakeholders, which leads me to….

  • Government should “Think about your reputation.”

It is safe to say that not all reputations have been enhanced by Brexit. There’s a lesson here for climate change too. Ask yourself this: what will getting our response to climate change wrong do to the reputation of my organisation? Look for the hidden reputational risks. Is your vehicle fleet as low emission as it can be? Are your suppliers burning a lot of hydrocarbons? Are your pension funds invested in companies that are part of the solution, or are you actually funding part of the problem?

  • Mind your language.

There have been a lot of intemperate words on all sides in the Brexit debate. They have usually generated more heat than light. The language we use matters. The right language can frame the debate in the right way. Striking language can get people’s attention. So too with climate change. If words like “climate change” and “global warming” have become a turn-off for most ordinary people, let’s use different words. Perhaps we should stop talking about climate change and call it what it now is: a climate emergency. Better still, let’s use language that lifts our emotions up rather than drags us all down. Let’s talk about what the right response to climate change will give us: sweet water, clean air, safe homes, a planet that stays blue and green not brown and grey.

  • “If you want to succeed, build a broad coalition.”

Not just cross party, but between government, business and the third sector, and critically with the public. While climate change isn’t the new Brexit, pulling together as a nation to focus on tackling climate change could help bring our country back together.

Elmhurst welcomed the speech and the encouragement that it gives to government to act professionally. The only criticism is that the speech talks about reducing emissions from buildings simply by  “greater use of renewable energy, and infrastructure to capture and store remaining carbon emissions.” When the first priority needs to be to reduce demand through a “fabric first” strategy, which will help make the buildings in which we live and work as energy efficient as possible. The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use.

Sir James finished his speech with a pun “climate change could provide that rallying point. Because while there may or may not turn out to be a Plan B for Brexit, there is no Planet B for us.”

For the full speech click here

Article Published: 17th April 2019

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