I was an impressionable teenager when, in 1985, then Prime Minister, David Lange, took part in the Oxford Union Debate. The subject of the debate was that ‘nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’. His opponent was the American evangelist Jerry Falwell.
For those who weren’t around back then, 1985 was a time when nuclear power, nuclear arms and the testing thereof was still widespread. Little old New Zealand had taken an opposing stance by banning the visitation by nuclear armed or powered ships. This stance was, not surprisingly, objected to by our major military partners at the time, in particular the US. Indeed, the nuclear free policy was a big part of a decades-long cooling of military relations between us and our allies.
In his inimitable Churchillian style, Lange rebutted Falwell, telling him that he could smell the uranium on his breath – a line that is well-remembered and oft repeated. It was perhaps, alongside the Rainbow Warrior bombing, a moment that marked New Zealand’s maturing into an independent nation with its own perspective and world view.
Our current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, seized the passion and focus of her predecessor in her 2017 campaign launch by saying that “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear-free moment.”
Lange’s words, and the needs of his Government played a big part in changing the global narrative around nuclear energy and weaponry, and I was thinking of this impact as it relates to our current climate crisis recently. The impetus for this reflection was my attendance at last week’s Chapter Zero breakfast.
Chapter Zero is a global initiative, supported in New Zealand by the Institute of Directors, that seeks to move the needle around planning for, and responding to, climate change. The thesis around Chapter Zero is that it is directors who have both the obligation (legally and morally) and the ability to act around this issue. As the Chapter Zero website says:
To fulfil their fiduciary duties in the long-term service of their organisations, directors need to be fully aware of the implications of climate change, have the skills, tools, processes and information to act, and commit to steward their companies through the challenges climate change entails to embed it within their companiesâ€™ strategic planning.
The breakfast has keynote addresses from Deputy PM and finance minister Grant Robertson as well as Rod Carr, Chair of New Zealand’s climate change commission. Both gentlemen are erudite and entertaining, and both challenged the various attendees to both understand their carbon position, and start making plans to prepare and adapt to what is coming.
And the prognosis is sobering. Rod Carr has an uncanny ability to make even a presentation framed as an opportunity sound depressing. He told some home truths – like the fact that even New Zealand, with all its renewable energy credibility, only hits 40% on the renewable energy supply measure. Or that the IPCC target of 1.5 degrees average temperature rise is generally accepted by scientists to have already been overshot, regardless of what we do now. Or that during the global lockdown around Covid – with airline travel and domestic transportation virtually grounded, our emissions only reduced a paltry six percent.
For his part, the deputy PM also encouraged attendees to move form intent to action, to measure accurately and to challenge themselves. He also did so within a context (understandable given the government’s focus on social and environmental impacts) of a just transition that doesn’t leave people behind.
And this is where it strikes me that there is both an opportunity, and a necessity to think more broadly. A just transition suggests to me that it achieves a win/win. That it moves the needle in the right direction from a climate perspective, but does so without deleterious social impacts. I’m not sure if this is the case, or if it is even possible.
And that is my challenge to my colleagues who serve on corporate boards. Don’t think of climate change and your organisations’ carbon footprint in isolation form its social impacts. If you constrain and compartmentalize your thinking you run the risk of a positive change on one side having negative unintended consequences in another.
No, what seems like the real opportunity here is to think about impact much more broadly. Measure your impacts across all aspects of your business and plan your mitigation and adaptation strategies thinking about the impacts they might have similarly across the board.
Climate change is complex and impacts upon the globe as a system in totality. When you think about your own part to play in the climate crisis, think similarly and apply a systems-thinking approach to what you do. David Lange and his government went further than simply banning nuclear vessels – they instead thought about all the different levers they could pull and ways they could influence a broader conversation. It’s time for us as directors to do similarly.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. Despite planting thousands of native plants at his home, he is still angst-ridden about his carbon footprint.