Climate Change: Incrementalism Is No Longer A Viable Option

Corporations can be directed towards a more sustainable planet — but we need to be bold.

By: Brad Zarnett

The climate is unravelling before our eyes. Unprecedented heat, flooding, melting and drought are just the tip of the iceberg, and yet our species can’t seem to find the unity needed to prevent a chaotic and possibly catastrophic future.

We have the knowledge and technology to take meaningful action but we don’t. We watch the various numbers rise such as atmospheric CO2 and the rate of warming in the Arctic and we treat it like any other headline, that is to say, we feel concern for a moment and then we go on with our comfortably destructive lives.

“They are… [not doing] enough to prevent the worst that climate change has in store for us.”

We are told by most politicians that our challenges are serious and that they are taking the necessary steps to protect us, but deep down we know better. They are doing just enough to stay in power but not nearly enough to prevent the worst that climate change has in store for us. Their simplistic and incremental solutions (something I call Fake Leadership) are mind numbingly inadequate. They tell us that we have to find compromise with those that have different views, which is fine, but in the end Mother Nature doesn’t compromise, and if we choose to play chicken with her — we’ll lose.

Corporate Control

We must demand the truth and stop allowing the corporate backed media to set the narrative, that business is part of the solution when in fact, quite the opposite is true; business is at the epicenter of the harm. An objective look at the evidence strongly suggests that the greatest efforts of corporations is to resist change that may impact their short term earnings while simultaneously finding new and inventive ways to “go green” that have little or no impact on the climate plundering system, that is to say, that maintin the status quo.

After all, business isn’t going to increase profits if they pay bigger taxes for their environmental harm, reduce cheap sweatshop labour, increase wages or if they retool and find another way to package their goods with something besides plastic. So business follows it’s north star goal to maximize profits, and much like government, they make promises, pledges, declarations and commitments but at the end of the day little changes and incrementalism reigns.

At a Crossroads

Together business and government form a very formidable wall of inadequacy and not surprisingly, their efforts have failed to make a dent in runaway climate change. So now with our carbon budget running out we find ourselves at a crossroads. A climate catastrophe is heading our way and small tweaks to business as usual won’t be enough.

We need to wake up and demand meaningful change. We must adopt drastic measures to protect our climate. The time for moderation and half measures has passed us by. We need a major disruption to the system.

I agree with historian Rutger Bregman, if history teaches us one thing it’s that change never starts in the centre, it always starts on the fringes with people who are first dismissed as crazy, unreasonable and ridiculous — until it happens. Consider slavery or a women’s right to vote.

How Will We Know It’s the Right Path?

We must take a good hard look at some of the ideas that are quickly dismissed by a corporate owned media looking to shield corporate elites and billionaires from taking responsibility for the harm that they’ve caused.We must move beyond the mainstream and since we only have one chance to get it right, we need to be keenly aware of the best indicator(s) that we’re on the right path.

…[as] the movement gets stronger and zeros into the source of the harm, the rhetoric will escalate and the attacks will become more vicious.

Those who sit atop this predatory pyramid, the corporate elites and billionaires, will mobilize a full court assault to challenge a new approach that impacts their wealth and control. At first it will be scary threats and heartfelt pleas to resist a liberal conspiracy that will lead to a life of poverty. But when that doesn’t work and the movement gains strength and zeros in on the source of the harm, the rhetoric will escalate and the attacks will become more vicious — just ask Greta. We must ignore this onslaught and remember to occasionally look back at the system that these architects created and where it has taken us, and have faith that we can create something better.

Metrics that Matter

Going forward we need to establish business metrics that matter. Yes, we must monitor the inputs that go into the economic system to ensure that we use more recycled and bio based materials and more renewable energy and we must find a productive use for the tonnes of plastic currently floating in our oceans. Less harm into the system is a positive and we need to celebrate those wins but what’s more important is the totality of what comes out of the system — the outputs — and unfortunately, the bad news is accelerating. Clearly there is a disconnect between what business is telling us and what they’re doing. (more on this later)

We must be vigilant as to the small actions of business that seem positive. Despite what E. F. Schumacher says, in this case, Small is not Beautiful. If small actions are not being scaled in a meaningful timeframe and it’s not being stitched together to make it a global effort then we have to question the effectiveness of the efforts — despite our inclination to want to celebrate actions that appear to be moving us in the right direction.

“change that doesn’t change anything, isn’t really change.”

Consider this analogy. When we look at infant mortality rates — we don’t gauge success by an increase in access to medicine or an increase in the number of hospitals being built; we look at the number of children who survive. The output of the effort is what matters and if that number goes down, then the effort failed. But we don’t leave it there, we ask questions and dig for more information so that we can make better decisions, in order to achieve our goal and reduce the number of children who don’t survive.

But when we measure the success of corporate sustainability we often look at pledges, targets, goals, aspirations, declarations, initiatives, steering committees and working groups. We regularly fool ourselves that we’re on the right track even when there is ample evidence to the contrary; every major ecosystem on the planet is in decline and co2 keeps rising. We must remind ourselves that, “change that doesn’t change anything, isn’t really change.”


The numbers suggest that there isn’t quite as much good sustainable news coming from the corporate world as they would like us to think. Perhaps their chosen approach to incrementally improve in a way that constantly grows profits doesn’t mesh with a sustainable planet.

Our current method of extracting non financial information from companies comes from the CSR reporting arm of corporate sustainability. While it has improved our understanding of how and where companies are having a negative impact, along with some isolated and well marketed projects, that appear to be positive, we are often left wondering if a company is truly acting in a holistic and meaningful way to reduce its environmental and social harm.

Too often corporations showcase CSR efforts that help small pockets of people while simultaneously contributing to policies that negatively affect millions. There’s a huge gap in information that clearly outlines where companies are spending their time and money. We can only learn so much about a company from what initiatives they support and which working group or associations they have joined or recently left.

Incremental Transparency

A good example is when Royal Dutch Shell recently announced that it will cease membership in the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) by 2020 due to the lobbying group’s stance on climate change. But keep in mind that Shell is still a member of various trade and lobbying groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, all of which have regressive stands on climate change.

According to Timothy Smith, director of ESG shareowner engagement at Walden Asset Management, speaking at the recent Ceres Conference, “Shell’s action is meaningful because it opens up a new frame of debate. It matters what associations do, as it’s your company’s money.”

“Shell has not met this standard.”

To call this meaningful brings into question the very definition of the word meaningful — I would call it a positive step but severely lacking in its ability to drive real change. An action that reduces negative influence is positive, in that it’s moving in the right direction but it still only gets you closer to neutral. We need action that takes companies forward to where there’s a tangible improvement. Shell has not met this standard.

A meaningful approach might be to remove themselves from all groups that delay action on climate change and use that money, their time and their influence to lobby for a new policy that would turn a company’s membership in a regressive organization into a decisive liability.

Disruptive Transparency

What does disruptive transparency look like? It’s simple when you place people, health, biodiversity and a stable climate before business opportunities, future clients, revenue and profits.

Companies that have a membership in any organization, or that have a connection to an individual or organization, through direct payment or non-financial support, that conducts lobbying efforts, that disrupts progressive legislation on climate change would be put on notice.

“…they would be added to a climate restricted list and no stock exchange would be permitted to facilitate the order.”

In 30 days, all fund managers, asset managers, money managers, portfolio managers, hedge funds, ESG advisors, banks and investment firms would find it impossible to invest or trade in any of these companies as they would be added to a climate restricted list and no stock exchange would be permitted to facilitate the order. Trading in your company’s stock would be indefinitely halted until certain conditions were met. Now that would be disruptive transparency and would cause a drastic and sudden shift in the investment sector.

Better Information for an Honest Conversation

I think we have to take a good look at CSR reports and question whether they’re providing us with valuable information or a neatly packaged marketing piece. We need to be able to gauge in real time the true level of a company’s commitment to sustainability and that begins with better information.

We need to begin an honest conversation of what companies are doing and change the narrative that companies are working hard to find solutions, yes, some are, but most are not. We need to quickly move beyond incremental change. We need a new narrative and that starts with a new level of transparency.

Brad Zarnett
 is a Canadian sustainability strategist, thought leader and speaker. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series(TSSS). You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnett, LinkedIn: Brad Zarnett and now on Medium Brad on Medium