So why do we have only 10 years to address this?
As the world’s lungs - forests and coral – continue declining, northern areas of Canada and Russia are enduring longer and hotter summers. The Canadian and Russian tundra contain vast quantities of methane which, when released into the atmosphere, are 30 times more ‘efficient' at capturing heat than CO2.
Reduced capacity to process atmospheric CO2 combined with increased methane in the atmosphere is incredibly hard to reverse - it will require extensive technological change to respond. After 10 years, it will probably be impossible to turn back the clock.
Climate change is just one aspect of the crisis of technology which also includes the new economy created by ubiquitous technology platforms (e.g. Google, Apple, Alibaba, and social media) and the unintentional harms this creates such as greater concentration of wealth and job loss; increased polarisation; rising mental illness in adolescents; and the invisible consequences of AI.
Institutions in crisis
The world’s 20th century institutions are founded on concepts that no longer appear as relevant and are beginning to creak under the weight of the 21st century’s booming populations, shifting global economic power and accelerating technology.
Evidence can be found wherever you look. From the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, to the Gilets Jaune in France, to Brexit in the UK. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found only 18 per cent of respondents felt the system was working for them. In Australia, Edelman found 50 per cent of respondents questioned whether capitalism did more harm than good.
The problem with failing institutional trust is that institutions (e.g. legal, education, financial and political systems, ‘experts’) are to people what water is to fish: they allow us to navigate life without thinking. Lost trust makes life extremely difficult and will eventually result in wholesale change.
The crisis of leadership
The crisis of leadership is apparent in the world’s inadequate response to the climate crisis. According to Climate Action Tracker, of the 197 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, only two (Morocco and Gambia) are on track to limit warming to 1.5°C. (Australia’s efforts are rated as “insufficient”.) This crisis of leadership has multiple causes but, at the heart of it, lies polarisation and the inability to reach a consensus, exacerbated by increased nationalism in this time of global crises.
In 2021, we must unite
As outlined in Ten Years to Midnight, addressing crises of this magnitude will require all parts of society – governments, institutions, business and citizens – to reimagine the possible and, in particular, to solve massive problems fast. The speed with which viable COVID-19 vaccines have been developed shows this is not impossible.
We have 10 years.
Blair Sheppard is Global Leader Strategy & Leadership at PwC
He is the co-author of Ten Years to Midnight: Four urgent global crises and their strategic solutions