Evolution of Sustainability to Sustainable Viability

During the Covid crisis what has observed is a building common narrative that to accelerate climate action, more systems thinking is required. 

However, amongst sustainability actors, without the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience to work and think at a system level the speed of change necessary to meet with IPCC goals will not be fast enough. Indeed, with solitary notions such as more unproven single technologies and the avoidance of doing more with what we have through technology integration, we run the risk of continuing environmental decline. 

Understanding decisions and their consequences

The ‘sustainability’ landscape has been – and is – confused by the vast nomenclature of the topic; sustainability has its own great expanse of variants that are dependent on any particular bias supported by individual confidence to overrule others e.g., planet before profit, green, low-carbon, circular economy, net-zero, and so on…There is a lack of balance, which ignites tensions between ‘sustainability’ actors that compete for space.

Targets have been set, and rightfully so. Countries, companies, investors eulogise about their strategies, with little thought to the tactics. Billions of dollars get spent on fragmented, distributed projects with no verified accounting as to whether the whole is productive, or not. Consequently, integrated solutions – institutional, technological, economic, behavioural or otherwise, needed to address the multiple challenges of the Climate Emergency – are urgently required.

Thus, to see accelerated action against climate change and biodiversity loss will need the bridging of fragmented specialisms and infill the knowledge gaps where waste resides. To join up politics, economics, society, technology, environment and law (Fig 1).

A Problem of Interpretation

IPCC Assessment Reports are the bedrock for informed climate political decision-making. Yet, how good are the target audience – climate related governmental organisations, environmental protection agencies, and non-governmental climate related institutions – at correct interpretation of that information?

In recent studies, respondents from the above groups (Master and PhD) to questionnaires were asked to identify geographical regions that will be most affected by future heat extremes and to look at progressive health impacts. Additionally, respondents were asked how confident they were that their interpretations were right. Even among those who were 100% certain that their interpretation was correct, only 50% had interpreted the information accurately.

Misinterpretation of information does not allow for optimal use of the scientific information for policymaking. As a result, detrimental political consequences can arise from differences in interpretations of complex information between decision-makers. Indeed, those whose subjective comprehension of climate change was higher than their objective comprehension tended to endorse more risky policy choices. 

Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom

Consequently, an absence of awareness of misinterpretation means that decision-makers feel no compulsion to seek information to rectify their misunderstanding. Ironically, decision-makers who are overconfident in their understanding often appear particularly convincing to others. 

Furthermore, since the results were similar for junior respondents (Master and PhD) who tended to be younger, more female, and have higher education levels suggests a general pattern that is generalisable to different groups. 

Over confidence of knowledge leads to systematically inaccurate conclusions, and can have far-reaching implications for climate change policy, technology choices, investment, operational, incentives, trade, business, health, inclusiveness and so on. 

It follows, that greater decision making and action that operates at the nexus of hard and soft systems, with greater embedded generalist knowledge, will instil in decision makers greater insights and develop stronger intuition. For example, in the interpretation of IPCC graphs, intuition that the answer they gave was wrong.  Or, to know when projects being presented are incomplete. For example, in a review of large well-funded projects where adjectives such as integrated, holistic and system were used, what was viewed was in reality a lack of completeness and feedback loops. Accordingly, this left the projects sub-optimal that otherwise would have captured, created and delivered more value.

Broaden the decision Space

Over confidence bias negates the feeling to seek further information. It restricts the decision space and keeps a very narrow scope and boundary on decisions. Hence, the lack of decision space restricts sight of consequences and opportunities forgone from the decisions made. Hence, decisions designed for environmental improvement that can make the environmental impact worse. Whole sections of society marginalised and disenfranchised. The poorest and most vulnerable (lowest emitters) penalised. This has created a breakdown of trust and buy-in (e.g., “gilets jaunes”, France). 

Accordingly, when the decision space is too narrow, and decisions are made in isolation and within siloed functions, two-dimension decisions are forced upon a three-dimensional world. This suggests, that if we are to truly create integrated, holistic solutions that tackle multiple issues simultaneously, then education is in the wrong place to do that. 

It follows, to move from incremental progress to exponential progress requires understanding how actions, and the decisions that created those actions, and if taken in the wrong order, will create sub-optimal outcomes. Opportunities to create value for all will be missed. And, dangerously missed will be the extra risk that is being built for our future generations. 

Through education, training and personal development the next generation of systems thinker will have the multidisciplinary, four dimensional mindsets of space and time that can assess the vast array of fragmented skills into both cogent policy as well as business and societal communications that instil action, that is both verified and trustworthy. Otherwise, the natural world will not benefit, and more vulnerable sections of society will be left behind.