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Five lessons from fifty world experts

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

The best part of my job is being able to talk to the smartest, most passionate people in the world.

I don’t normally discuss it here, but my podcast Conversations on Climate just hit a major milestone – our fiftieth episode. If you so choose (ultra-endurance race? Submarine shift? MBA interview cramming?) you could now listen to more than 48 straight hours of our interviews.

That’s the biggest privilege it has given me: access to these remarkable minds, trying to solve the biggest problems of our age. The biggest benefit has been how often they have shaken the foundations of everything I thought I knew about economics and business.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. When it comes to climate, we might borrow the title of Naomi Klein’s book: This Changes Everything. Myths have been busted. Old sureties have been replaced by cutting-edge theory and evidence. And I have experienced more than one radical reframing along the way. 

It feels selfish to hoard all this to myself, so here are five of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from fifty outstanding people.

1. Climate change might just be a rational accident

The first bombshell came from JP Benoit, Professor of Economics at London Business School, who explained his concept of ‘rational accidents.’ You can find his brilliant TedTalk here. His key insight is that disasters are sometimes not a consequence of mistakes, but a consequence of everyone doing the right, rational thing. 

He explained that in some ways, our failure to solve climate change could also be a rational accident, in that all countries are incentivised to leave it to others. We are trapped in a game theory prison, and the attempts to creates safeguards and solutions at a global level ironically may exacerbate the problem.

My next question: This is a powerful frame, but how can we include the reality of unequal power dynamics within it? Big Oil and the Petrostates in particular are hardly well-intentioned actors doing things by accident…

2. Polarisation is a nasty problem. We should feel, not think, our way through it

The shaping of climate change into a culture war issue has been a disaster for the West in particular. Without a solution to our deepening political polarisation, the chance of landing on Paris-compliant policies is fast trending towards zero.

The general response is either to bemoan the stupidity of the other side, or try and construct a better factual argument to get the message across. I’ve now largely given up on both thanks to Professor Alex Edmans. 

Alex was talking to me about his new book about misinformation, May Contain Lies. It is a fully-throated defence of rationality and evidence in a political world. So I was incredibly surprised when he told me that the answer to polarisation is actually more empathy. Rather than lambast our opponents for their misuse of the facts, we should feel into the why of their position. From there we can reason back to discover a bridge to our own position.

My next question: How do we take the high road whilst remaining muscularly opposed to those on both sides who use algos and PR to profit from divisions.

3. Natural capitals can reframe the growth dilemma

How can we argue for sustainability in a world addicted to growth? This is one of the biggest challenges we face in the transition to an ecological civilisation.

For Jane Stout, Professor of Botany, the answer might just be natural capitals. Plenty of people support increasing GDP for generous reasons, such as development. If we can instead measure not flows of income but the health of assets, we can make the case for financial investment and stewardship in the natural world instead. It’s only a small logical leap from P&L to the balance sheet.

My next question: What is the best metric under development that could stand alongside (even replace) GDP, and help orient society towards natural capital?

4. The South might actually be our best hope

From a European perspective, thinking about the developing world in a climate context is dominated by guilt. 

Not for Rajesh Chandy, Professor of Marketing. He argues we should reframe the South as active agents rather than passive victims. They actually have more experience in the system shifts climate requires and can teach us how to get there. Technological leapfrogging (mobile payments being the classic example) and their experiences of compressed change are exactly the models Europe now needs. 

My next question: Where are the north-south partnerships working on importing innovation back into Europe and America, particularly to help us learn how to leapfrog legacy infrastructures like the fossil fuel network?

5. We must embrace influence as more than a dirty word

People who want to look after the world for others are rarely interested in self-promotion. Machiavelli is an insult in our world, after all! But that is a problem, explains Professor Zoe Chance. If we don’t pick up the tools of psychology and use them for good, then we simply abandon the field to those who don’t share our mission. And they have no qualms in employing these things to do harm.

It may feel uncomfortable – but purpose-first folk need to educate themselves in the art of influence too.

My next question: How can we employ techniques that work on people’s lizard brains, whilst being transparent with our audience on what we are doing and why?

There we have it – five powerful lessons from my first fifty episodes. Here’s to fifty more!

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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