Should we employ cautious optimism regarding climate change?
If you’re over 30 you can probably remember a time when invoking “the future” was a call to imagine a world of endless wonders: autonomous cars, high-speed levitating trains and civilization extending far beyond the confines of Earth. But as our emissions continue to grow year after year, and as nations now find themselves literally engulfed in flame, the future we were promised—the one I have dedicated my life to imagining and building—is increasingly under threat from the future we are currently building today.
But despite legitimate cause for great alarm, there are, every day, stronger and stronger signals that we are beginning to understand the problem—and to act.
Consider this: According to a study by the U.N. and Accenture, only 21% of CEOs think business is playing a critical role in meeting the U.N.’s global sustainability goals. But at the same time, 99% of CEOs surveyed believe that “sustainability will be important to the future success of their business.” And they don’t just mean in terms of CSR and marketing: 41% listed environmental degradation as the most critical factor in their company’s competitive strategy.
There is cause for cautious optimism.
What the gap between these numbers tells us is that CEOs around the world are finally waking up to the towering scale of the climate crisis. It tells us that they know that what they’re doing today simply isn’t enough to secure the future of our planet or their businesses and that their efforts must be redoubled accordingly.
And while there is still a long way to go, around the globe, that’s exactly what is beginning to happen.
Just last month, after calling for a global carbon tax and committing three-quarters of a trillion dollars to renewable energy projects, Goldman Sachs announced it will cease financing fossil fuel extraction projects in the Arctic as well as new thermal coal mines, mountaintop coal removal projects and coal-fired power plants. Not to be outdone, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, then followed suit, announcing a similar, albeit less committed, agenda. And Microsoft committed to going beyond carbon neutral to a carbon-negative footprint.
At the same time, more than 700 of the biggest companies in the world are adopting independently validated, science-based emissions targets in line with the Paris agreements. Three hundred of them, including Tyson Foods and McDonalds, are already implementing such plans which, together, will eliminate 265 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
But despite these improvements and an obvious reckoning across the business community with the fact that much more must be done, the math remains, and it tells us that we are falling catastrophically short of our ambitions. Our species is still releasing roughly 43 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
So where does that leave us?
While it is true that we are not close to solving the climate crisis, it is also true that for the first time in the history of the crisis, the preconditions for solving it are finally coming together all at once. Corporations can’t do this alone. To address the climate crisis, two other groups must mobilize as well: governments and citizens. And for the first time, we are starting to see meaningful movement on these fonts as well.
On the governmental front, despite the lackluster performance at the latest U.N. climate summit, the EU has committed $1 trillion to climate mitigation, while 114 nations have just committed to increasing the ambition of their climate mitigation plans before the upcoming climate talks in the U.K. And among the global citizenry, alarm about the climate crisis is at an all-time high. In the United States—bolstered by, among other things, record levels of youth activism—a significant plurality of voters, around 60%, report being either alarmed or concerned about the climate.
That the will to act is now materializing all at once among all three groups is perhaps the most significant development of the last decade.
Can the will to act be united with the means to do so in time?
It took solar technology 40 years to advance to the point where it is just now becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels, to the point where, from a strictly financial perspective, it’s a better bet for Goldman Sachs than coal. To avoid the worst of the climate crisis, this needs to happen across a sprawling portfolio of technologies covering agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and energy so those with the will to act may also find the means to do so at their disposal. But we don’t have 40 years. By some estimates we have less than 10 years.
As the CEO of a tech company, I find this timeline cause for excitement, not despair. I run a company with a mandate to radically reimagine everything—to see what should be but isn’t yet, and make it real. And for the first time, my fellow colleagues in tech and I now operate our companies in an environment where our radically imaginative solutions aren’t seen as “nice to haves” anymore, but, increasingly, as essential to preserving a future worth having at all. It is an environment where, for the first time, enthusiasm for the future we were promised is being met with real demand for building it.
That the prospects for doing so, and doing so in the next decade, are now more real than ever, and that the future we were promised must, in fact, be built if we are to avoid the future we dread, animates me and fills me with hope.
But the clock is ticking. It’s time to get to work.