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An inclusive climate transition starts with inclusive decision-making

The world is facing a decisive moment in the battle against climate change–one that requires bringing a range of voices and perspectives to the table.

Climate action failure is the No. 1 risk by impact over the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020. While the report notes that climate change threatens to exacerbate socio-economic inequalities in the transition to a low-carbon economy, it also emphasises that alongside the risks, the next decade can also bring tremendous opportunity.

Alleviating the burden

Part of the opportunity in addressing climate change is recognising that it goes hand-in-hand with addressing the groups disproportionately impacted by it: namely the social and economically marginalised.

The United Nations has estimated that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report further states that “women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during natural disasters, which are likely to intensify or become more frequent because of climate change.”

Despite this disproportionate impact, the average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30%.

As governments and businesses create and execute transformative strategies to address climate change, it’s critical to also embed the principles of diversity and inclusion into decision-making process. This will result in improved outcomes for those most exposed to climate change – and lasting, positive changes that extend beyond climate.

Improving decision-making

Tackling climate change will be one of the most complex challenges leaders face this century. Research has shown that organisations are most effective at addressing formidable challenges and delivering breakthrough solutions when their problem-solving processes include diverse views and voices. Their solutions are also more likely to be designed for – and accepted by – a wider range of stakeholders.

Deloitte discussed these themes in The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution in 2018, explaining that diversity + inclusion = better business outcomes. Inclusion occurs when people feel they are:

  • Treated equitably and with respect
  • Valued and have a sense of belonging
  • Safe to speak up
  • Empowered to grow

There have also been many well-regarded articles published discussing the value of diversity in decision-making. For example, Harvard Business Review’s “Why Diverse Teams are Smarter” notes that “striving to increase workplace diversity is not an empty slogan — it is a good business decision.”

The article also cites global analysis that showed organisations with at least one female board member delivered a higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those with male-only boards. Such findings underscore the need for diverse voices at the decision making table.

Better representation brings better solutions

Developing solutions to tackle climate change with a diversity and inclusion mindset offers the opportunity to solve both business and societal issues. This approach to climate action is currently being discussed in policy spheres, including at the World Economic Forum, in terms of a “just transition.” A transition to a lower-carbon future that also considers social and economic implications. 

These principles are also embedded in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which asks parties to consider diversity and inclusion by stating that they should:

… respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.

Embracing the opportunity

The scale of the change needed to address the climate crisis requires a departure from “business as usual.” Government and business leaders have a unique opportunity – and responsibility – to address underlying social inequalities as they create a more climate-resilient future. 

More governments and businesses are announcing ambitious plans to address climate change and move towards net-zero or even negative carbon emissions. For example, the leaders of China, Denmark, France, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom have all made significant, time-bound commitments to reach net-zero emissions – meaning a balance between the emissions they produce and remove from the atmosphere. The United States, which recently rejoined the Paris climate accord, and Canada recently announced net-zero plans as well.

Encouragingly, a number of these plans incorporate “just transition” principles to ensure fairness and equity are considered. The European Green Deal, for example, sets out plans for a climate-neutral and zero-pollution transformation while aiming for a just transition that “leaves no one behind.” South Korea has announced similar aspirations in its Green New Deal.

These plans are inspiring businesses to follow suit, and in many cases, move faster than governments. Global organisations including BHP, Shell, Tata, Unilever and others have announced a range of decarbonisation and net-zero plans.

To succeed, these commitments need the large-scale transformation of industries and societies. As boards, executive teams and individuals gather to turn net-zero into reality, there is a huge opportunity to improve not just climate, but also society.

Organisations should consider who is making climate decisions, what their end goals are, and whether their transformations will help or hinder equity and inclusion. One of the first steps to integrating climate, diversity and inclusion – and improving all three areas – is to elicit input and participation from a wide range of voices.