An adaptive agreement for a complex dilemma

Over more than 20 years we have been trying to put in place a meaningful climate change agreement. Extraordinarily, in Paris 196 countries just managed this. Or did they?

The scale of what has been achieved is immense.  For example, the Climate Institute’s CEO, John Connor says this agreement “signals to communities, investors and companies around the world that the shift to clean energy is now unstoppable”.

By the numbers, the world and Australia made a significant step with more than 100 countries banding together as the “High Ambition Coalition” to call on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees in addition to the 2 degree target.

There is, however, plenty of realism. George Monbiot points out “with 2C of warming, large parts of the world’s surface will become less habitable… wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms… Islands and coastal districts in many parts of the world are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.”

James Hansen is more direct: “It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’

So is it a fraud? This agreement features pledges for action? There may be 3 very well validated principles at play.

Climate change is a dilemma – the sort of problem where there can be a tragedy of the commons in which high emitting countries damage the world’s ability to provide resources and life support services for us all. However, Nobel prize-winning research, led by Elinor Ostrom and many others, discovered this tragedy is only valid in very limited special circumstances. Three conditions are necessary, but not sufficient, for effective answers. Firstly, the resource must be important and prominent enough for the users to create new managing institutions. Secondly, the users must not be constrained  from creating and setting their own rules. Thirdly, at least some of the users must be able to communicate with each other and bargain.

These conditions appear to be some of what the Paris agreement enables – multiple different centres of action pledging reductions, reviewing and communicating about implementation and holding ourselves to account.

We have an adaptive agreement – one in which action can change (and will need to) as knowledge about the impacts increases. A 2C target, for example, does not provide certainty. Rather, it is a level at which a range of dangerous outcomes are less likely to occur. Encouragingly, the agreement seems to mirror human experience backed by decades of research. Our societies can and have answered very similar, albeit smaller issues, under the right conditions.

Pic: Climate Insititute. For background and references on commons dilemmas see Common pool resources, A climate for change: An exploration towards Integral Action Loops to apply our knowledge for sustainability success. Chapter 5, The University of Adelaide.

A Climate for Change

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 12.00.00 PMDeveloping and implementing successful sustainability interventions to tackle pressing environmental and society challenges is of paramount importance but complex.

I have worked in this field for decades and the challenge – to comprehend sustainability and change – led me to a PhD. I’m delighted to say I completed this last year and have just received the 2014 University of Adelaide’s “Doctoral Research Medal for outstanding research at a PhD level“.

In my thesis, I argue it requires understanding the many different ways in which people make sense of the problems, working with, and designing for, current circumstances and opportunities, while simultaneously seeking to enable desirable futures.

To manage across the complexity of sustainability, the investigation explores meta-theory and a particular type of it, integral theory. It does this to navigate through multiple theory lenses. These represent perspectives commonly applied to interpret circumstances and implement successful interventions. Furthermore, the examination of multiple theories is tested empirically against two multinational companies that are regarded as sustainability leaders. In doing this, several powerful lenses are looked at in some detail. These include action logics to examine how individuals make sense of sustainability. Additionally, principles associated with centuries of successful community protection of common pool resources, plus organisational stages that mirror a person’s action logic, are correlated with effective sustainability outcomes.

A new framework, called Integral Action Loops, was the ultimate outcome from analysing these lenses and many others. It offers an evolutionary approach to consider the subjective and objective facets of sustainability and multiple theories of change, filtered through a single, double and triple loop learning scheme. Integral Action Loops promise a way to dynamically steer towards sustainability, facilitate more effective interventions, and holistically engage and value the input of many for sustainable, flourishing futures. Beyond this, the framework may assist across other fields of progressive human endeavour.

A climate for change: An exploration towards Integral Action Loops to apply our knowledge for sustainability success is available here (and through The University of Adelaide).


A couple of pointers that are hopefully useful (by way of orientation) for anyone reading the whole thesis. I’m very aware that this is written for an academic audience.  If you’ve not spent the last 7 years reading this type of writing there are, I hope, a couple of more accessible points.

  • The reviewers do a fabulous job summarising the research and extending into potential for it. The reviews are here>>>

As a guide around the thesis:

  • The first chapter says what I intend to research and why.
  • The last chapter (nine) is relatively short. A fair bit of this last chapter provides the back story about why I thought I wanted to write and research sustainability. It should give you some context before the deeper parts.
  • The sustainability action logics chapter (four) almost stands alone. If you’re familiar with stages or action logics it’s probably a reasonable entry point after 1 and 9.
  • Similarly, the common pool resources chapter (five) is relatively self contained. If you are reading this one you’re possibly interested in voluntary collaborations (there are lots of them) that successfully answer society challenges and dilemmas. These have often delivered outstanding results protecting the environment for centuries. Many of the principles that describe success in such situations are seen in business sustainability efforts today.
  • If you would like a longer summary of each chapter this summary is at the end of chapter one.


Matching words to action

This is the text from my keynote, yesterday, for The University of Adelaide’s MBA opening dinner:

I’m going to talk to you tonight about paradoxes – the sorts of crazy contradictions that we see all the time, and we are often unconscious to the importance of these clashes. 
The very fact we are all here, at the start of an MBA program, means that these strange inconsistencies are nagging at us, sometimes prominently, sometimes as a background unease. 
This is, part of the reason for programs like this is an effort to make sense of business contradictions and inconsistencies, to master administration and make a difference.
For me these issues are most easily illustrated thorugh sustainability. There are large contradictions between data and what we think we know. For example, the World Bank recently calculated that tackling climate change would help to grow the world’s economy by US$1.8 to 2.6 trillion a year.
Now, given its Friday night, just let me spend a little more time on that number – there are not many more in this talk! First this is the World Bank – not an environmental advocacy group modeling growth. Second, yes I did say 1.8 trillion dollars a year. And, third, you’re right to be a bit taken aback or credulous about such a number. Surely, if it’s profitable we would not struggle so much to act on climate change.
Concluding para: We’re faced with overwhelming evidence around the need and potential for change. However, this often does not match views around how the world is organised. This is a huge opportunity and gift. Whenever something does not make sense, does not add up, seems impossible or incongruous, have a look for the ‘edges’. These are the places at which you might be missing something. Invariably these are openings into exciting worlds and perspectives – and you’ve been given the keys to this within these paradoxes.

It’s personal: why leaders don’t turn climate knowledge into action

There is an abundance of profitable business opportunity to be found in addressing sustainability issues. These stand out against the difficulties we face implementing effective change. Globally, the World Bank recently found that tackling climate change would help to grow the world’s economy by US$1.8 to 2.6 trillion a year.

Private sector investors argue for action as well. One prominent example is the Carbon Disclosure Project which represents 767 institutional investors holding US$92 trillion in assets worldwide. Its programs reward and promote companies acting on climate change.

There is detailed analysis, alongside successfully implemented examples, across nearly every industry sector showing an 80% reduction in environmental impact for each dollar of economic output. This is not, necessarily, even a case of implementing new technology. Planning and design help to deliver similar outcomes – for example, in residential developments.

So why is there so much resistance to change, and why is the prime minister’s chief business adviser distracting business with warnings about global cooling?

Of course, some of the reasons are financial – an illustration is the estimated AU$8 billion that would flow to coal electricity, at the expense of other businesses, if Australia’s renewable energy target is cut. However, it would be falling into a trap, similar to Newman’s simple cooling analysis, to imagine that such numbers explain everything.

An extraordinary paradox is that unrealised, profitable, low-risk change opportunities have existed for decades. Business has simply not acted to maximise its profits and this is particularly apparent with respect to energy efficiency.

What’s stopping business?

Business leaders are always planning, to some degree, for the future, in order to manage market trends and investor expectations, among a host of other reasons. But there are many trends and issues demanding our attention – there are ever increasing levels of complexity that business is challenged by. Consequently, when Maurice Newman expounds on global cooling you may feel relief – at last, something that makes life simpler!

You may wonder how anyone, especially someone holding such an important business and national leadership position, could be so irresponsible. Never mind the article’s selective simple science, what about the squandered opportunities, the billions his opinion implicitly de-prioritises? It does this to our individual and collective detriment.

Business, and the country, is much better served by promoting strategy and action based on the risks and opportunities arising from climate change.

Part of the problem is that we are privileging financial and other measures to the detriment of our real motivators, personal values and cultural cares.

Understanding ‘action logics’

The good news is we have some powerful models that can help us navigate our more subjective perspectives. One is called “action logics”.

An analogy is that each action logics perspective is a different coloured lens through which someone views the world. It colours how we know, and make sense of, environmental imperatives.
Action logics shows us that adults tend to express sustainability concepts in markedly different ways that mirror distinct stages of ever increasing mental complexity. Consequently, important motivators for some individuals may be far less prominent for others.

For example, at what we call the “expert” level, adults work effectively with abstract models. The person’s expert knowledge helps to solve defined problems. However, this is often within narrow boundaries of this expertise and the importance of other perspectives or approaches can often be disregarded, viewed as not relevant expertise.

In contrast the next action logic, “achiever”, values (among other things) mutualism. It is correlated with a step change in mental and cognitive capacity such that many diverse fields of expertise are likely to be weighed and evaluated against each other.

Adults can continue to develop through these stages, to later and more complex capacities and capabilities. Importantly, these action logics are highly relevant in today’s complex and volatile business world (for example, with respect to leadership and organisational success, enabling conscious capitalism and to meet our nation’s needs).

This sort of later stage complexity is associated with valuing and managing across abundant information. That is, success is far more than just the financial practicality – the risks and opportunities related to business and climate change spread into ethical, social, and cultural dilemmas. How we know – as modelled by action logics – is as important, if not more so, than what we know. We need to be able to join up many dots – social acceptability, financial viability, alignment and workforce innovation and motivation, our future outlook alongside the expectations we wish to meet and set for our business and society’s well being, to name just a few.

Action logics shine a light on why simple science opinions can appeal to many. It goes part of the way to explaining why business leaders are still struggling to integrate values and economics. Personally, it helps us map what we may need to become to meet important challenges.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation and the version on my blog contains minor modifications that add extra background links. Read the original article here.
Picture: The prime minister’s business adviser Maurice Newman continues to distract business leaders on the issue of climate change. Julian Smith/AAP

End Ecocide – a transformational inflection point

At the Planet Talks, WOMADelaide, Polly Higgins introduced the need for a 5th international law – to eradicate Ecocide.

A law ending Ecocide – no more mass damage and destruction – is far more likely than it may appear at first sight. Polly describes her ‘light bulb moment’ – how is it that this is not a crime? She realised there were international precedents, that the Rome Statutes create a structure for such law and it was an extraordinary gap. Subsequently, she generated substantial support from some of the 82 signatory countries that are necessary to enact international law. Eradicating ecocide law would change our investment landscape, redirecting funding to clean technology alternative and supporting national environmental legislation.

On stage with Polly was Tim Flannery and Peter Garrett. The ecocide concept impressed to such an extent that Tim saw Polly as the next William Wilberforce. An extraordinary seminal figure in the history of positive change.

Unfortunately, as Tim pointed out, William spent 44 years introducing bills to the British parliament to end slavery. During this time many people must have thought he was either crazy or sadly deluded. There was no hope of ending slavery. There were far too many rich and powerful vested interests who wished to profit further at other’s expense.

Fast forward 200 years. Does this sound familiar? Powerful vested interests that would prefer maintaining the fossil fuel status quo? It’s not the first time such comparisons have been made.

So, can we wait 44 years? Or are we already the equivalent of 40 years into this movement, especially given how exponentially faster waves of change are today? Here’s why I think international law to eradicate ecocide may be possible and upon us.

The abolish slavery movement arrived at a time when global awareness was growing substantially. A revolutionary time for human liberty, equity and justice albeit equally one of great struggle. Fast forward to today and we have an analogous physical reality. There’s a growth of consciousness alongside awareness of the gross scale ecological systems collapses that are confronting us. Old polluting technology is becoming irrelevant (such as a 1/2 trillion dollar threat)

As an analogy, many would have thought you were mad if you said the Berlin Wall was about fall in 1988. Yet that is exactly what happened through 1989.

Ending ecocide may just be more realisable than many believe. Notwithstanding this, for large scale investors in fossil fuel or environmentally destructive activity, its a major investment consideration.

Old people will save the world

The need for quick, sustainable, global transformations versus our relative inaction appears to be a complete paradox. It’s so obviously in our own collective, as well as individual, self interest to act on many pressing environmental issues. It’s often in our own financial self interest to change. Yet we’re still far from seeing the sort of positive futures represented by such alternatives being holistically adopted.

Futurist Richard Slaughter, writing The Biggest Wakeup Call in History, lays out the challenge:

…when we come to issues such as global warming, [time is] exactly what we don’t have. However we choose to proceed we’re now set on a path that leads through a period that will test humanity as never before. In the process, the most vulnerable areas will likely see dramatic decreases in human populations.

Richard explicitly looks for what may take us through the needed transformation – an ‘awakening’.

For some, such a transformation may sound far fetched. From a technical standpoint, looking at our very significant ecological debt, achieving global and deep structural sustainability transformations looks very hard. However, there’s more than just measurable carbon dioxide levels and technology that may create such a shift.

In this great new audio Robert Kegan, Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard, explains the Self-Transforming Mind. Humans are at a unique point in history being both the makers of our own peril, knowing this peril race and at the same time with greatly expanded lifespans and the wisdom this may bring with age.

Kegan’s talk briefly explains how we (can) move through more mentally complex stages in life and the distinct step changes that are characteristic of these shifts. His model of human development results from decades of study but this talk is mostly presenting his “big idea”. This is that the very longevity of our lifespans – in part also a determinant of the stresses placed on our biosphere – may also enable our older centre of gravity to figure out how to save our species.

Older people are more likely to reach Kegan’s fifth and final ‘mental complexity’ stage, the self-transforming stage. With this comes vital capacities that make it more likely we can manage, act on and move past many of the barriers which have left us facing “the biggest wakeup call in history”.

A full explanation, audio plus video soon, is here.

Photo: Robert Keegan Title: Matthew Mezey

Two Pauls – Ehrlich and Gilding – on transformation v’s collapse

Is there a sea change in our attitudes? Just as many people may not understand exponential growth and its consequences are we also missing another fundamental change – the underpinnings for a transformed society?

Paul Gilding has just made a case that climate change success is at hand. He says:

There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory…. [We’re looking at] the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen. ….

This time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.

There’s plenty of technical corroborating evidence. Such evidence includes Los Angeles switching off coal powered electricity, China building more wind than coal power for the first time ever in 2012 and Ros Garnaut highlighting how Australian business is radically underestimating China’s commitment to low or zero carbon energy. However, be careful of any technical examples like this – you can’t necessarily extrapolate from a city or country case to a zero carbon society – there may be, for example, geophysical limits to global wind power.

Balancing the positive signs are the scales of our multiple challenges. On the physical side human emissions of greenhouse gas have locked in climate change. Culturally, our societies tend to focus on the present rather than ‘rationally’ accounting for future risk.

As Paul Ehrlich recently put it this is a huge stretch – hard scientific debate variously puts the chances of avoiding a collapse of civilization at 10 per cent (others may go higher).

We’re left holding simultaneously to seemingly irreconcilable and mutually contradictory perspectives. Thin chance v’s on the cusp of a transformation.

Funny thing is they are both true.

Picture: Paul Ehrlich Canberra March 21 2013 by Anthony Burton.


Australia is in the grip of “a once-in-20 or 30-year heatwave” with extremes over 40 degrees. Despite the heat, and the likelihood that there will be many more extreme events like this as climate change hits, the Australian media almost universally omits to mention greenhouse gas, global warming or climate change in its reporting. A quick search (1, 2 & 3) finds less than ten stories.

The consequences, of extreme heat, are usually mainstream media material. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that 173 people died from the 2009 Black Saturday fires in the state.  The same report predicts that extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill over one thousand people in an event.

Numbers like these seem to be losing salience in with the Australian public, or at least our media.  The lack of reporting certainly enhances research that demonstrates fear won’t do it and views that “Our leaders and the community at large are still in denial (or studiously unaware) of the realities of global change

So what might do it? Beyond Denial: Managing the Uncertainties of Global Change from Australia 21 looks at this. In it:

Paul Gilding, the author of “The Great Disruption,” … argues that rather than a steady decline, the human world will, in the next one or two decades, experience shocks of such magnitude arising from our disordered economic system, climate change and peak oil, that they will call forth an emergency crisis response that will enable us to harness human ingenuity to craft a genuinely sustainable future for those humans who survive the shocks. 

There’s plenty more here but, of course, no simple solutions for complex entangled problems such as global warming.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald The Heat and Dry is On

2012 a perfect storm?

George Monbiot and Ross Gittins, an environmentalist and an economist, both have two related and compelling reveiws of 2012 trends.

Ross writes about Jeffrey Sachs’ evidence for “the four business gangs that run the US“. Sachs’s highlights how:

”corporate wealth translates into political power … into further wealth … Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth,” Part of this power “has played a notorious role in the fight to keep climate change off the US agenda” underwriting “a generation of anti-scientific propaganda to confuse the American people.”

George covers 2012 as “the year we did our best to abandon the natural world“:

Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast. 

Australia however may have bucked some these trends (ironically as the world’s leading coal exporter). Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke, perhaps a little optimistically, points out “in 2012 we returned the Murray Darling to health, became the world leader on protecting the oceans…“. Australia also introduced a carbon price in 2012 and, within the context of what Sachs and Monbiot outline, this is genuine progress.

What is different? Leadership perhaps? A more civil society? An economy that still supports a broader environmental debate? Regardless of the fact that we are clearly far from a successful sustainbility shift on the scales needed (e.g. see Beyond Denial: managing the uncertainties of global change) are there some pointers to come from Australia’s 2012? It’s not easy to generalise from such trends so comments welcome!

Image: Giant fish made entirely from discarded plastic bottles. Rio, UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

World in Transition, a Great Transformation

Looking at climate change and sustainability challenges it’s clear that individual action, our actions, are necessary. However we struggle when faced by scale and speed – a fast and revolutionary global shift is needed. How can any one person make a difference?

The German Advisory Council on Global Change puts individuals at the heart of a radical new ‘business basis‘.  They say:

“individual actors can play a far larger role in the transformation of social (sub-)systems than the one that has been accorded to them for quite some time”

The council, a scientific advisory body to the German government, in its beautifully written 400+ page report (World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability) rest the prospect of a ‘Great Transformation‘ on 4 pillars:

  1. knowledge (evidence) based, 
  2. individual actors and change agents, 
  3. a proactive state (governments) and, 
  4. establishment of effective global governance. 

We’ve seen unsustainable societies – such as the USSR, communist eastern Europe, Libya and Egypt -fall in recent times. Today’s unsustainable global carbon society could be similar but we have to actively plan for our future.

The council compares our the change we’ll undergo to only two in human history – the neolithic (farming)  and the industrial revolutions. The difference is it requires consious guidance rather than the evolutionary change seen during these previous revolutions.

This ‘Great Transformation’, then, is by no means an automatism. It very much depends on ‘organising the unplannable’ if it is to succeed within the available tight timeframe. This is unique in history, as the ‘world’s great transformations’ of the past were the result of gradual evolutionary change.

And the Council’s take home line? It “has reached the ultimate conviction that the great transformation into a low-carbon society is not just necessary, but really feasible.”