Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

Every once in a while I feel like ranting. This is one of those times. The object of my censure? Global warming. You read that right. I’m one of those people who actually questions whether, a) the earth is getting warmer and, b) whether humans are the cause of the warming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the science or try to convince you. On the other hand, I do wish to point out what I believe are some fundamental fallacies in the debate.

I think it is critical that leaders in business, government and science take a stand against simplistic explanations and policy prescriptions that could be massively disruptive to our quality of life, now and in the future. Labelling as a “denier” someone who questions the policy prescriptions (some of which are decidedly moral in scope), or even the science, only serves to stigmatize people whose doubt is genuine and moves the debate further away from rational discourse about possible causes and consequences.

We’re bombarded by claims that the earth is getting dangerously warm, and will continue to do so for the next decades. We’re also being told that this warming is caused by humans’ excessive use of fossil fuels, because this causes us to spew too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it has some part to play in keeping the temperature of Earth liveable, along with other greenhouse gases such as water vapour, methane and the nitrogen that makes up about 80 % of the atmosphere. To put things in perspective, the surface temperature of the planet would be about minus 18 Celsius were it not for the greenhouse effect.

We are told that there is a “scientific consensus” about anthropogenic global warming. There may indeed be a majority of climate scientists who think that the earth is getting warmer and that this may be caused by greenhouse gas emissions. But does that mean that there really is a consensus? That would imply that there is agreement on what is happening to the earth’s temperature over long timescales and this phenomenon’s implications for the atmosphere, biosphere, ice cover, oceans, continents, and humanity. My research leads me to the conclusion that there is actually very little scientific consensus about these matters. In fact, there seems to be healthy scientific debate, which is exactly the way things should be. I would go even further and assert that the concept of scientific consensus is bogus, because debate and disagreement are fundamental to science. If you take away the debate, doubt, and disagreement you get ideology.

There is also a principle in science that states that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is usually the best and most accurate one. The hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming is indeed simple, but the explanation that is proffered must be weighed against competing theories. Just ask yourself this: If humans are causing global warming now, then what caused the glaciers to melt? Could there not be other theories of climate change that could explain the many climate changes in Earth’s history? There are scientists (usually not climatologists and more often geologists and astrophysicists) who have been proposing alternative hypotheses and theories for global warming which don’t necessarily involve human activity as the principal driver of climate change. They don’t say the latter isn’t possible, but merely that it isn’t likely given all the other potential explanations.

A vocal minority has taken control of the debate and is telling us that we have to consume less energy (not a bad idea in and of itself), that we should be paying taxes to penalize excessive fossil fuel use, and that we should be changing our civilization to make it “greener.” The problem is that many of the solutions to replace fossil fuels are not as reliable or efficient, are more expensive by orders of magnitude, and would take decades, if not centuries, to implement. New taxes or policies may be appear salutary in the short term, but they always have unintended consequences. Even worse though, are all the do-gooders who want to ensure that the poor of the world don’t have access to the same quality of life and wealth as we do by restricting their ability to benefit from a high-energy lifestyle. It’s no surprise that developing countries have opposed treaties to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They know that doing so could hamper their economic development, just as it’s taking off.

What does this have to do with management and leadership? In a nutshell, I think that leaders in all fields must take the initiative in denouncing ad hominem attacks, overly emotional arguments, and calls for conformity. Humans have done an excellent job over the centuries of improving quality of life through new energy sources and uses for the power they provide. It is economic necessity and logic that will bring about more efficiency in our energy use, not global treaties and arbitrary taxes that are imposed by do-gooders and others who have nothing better to do than control others’ lives.

In other words, we need a global cooling of rhetoric, and a rational approach to energy use. I believe a healthy scepticism about totalising explanations and prescriptions, combined with scientific curiosity and the practices of sound management are what will give us the best approach to our problems.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

As reported in the Globe and Mail (January 17th, 2007), “Instead of leaving in 2008, (British Petroleum CEO) Lord Browne found himself embroiled in what is tantamount to a boardroom putsch and is leaving the company – which he helped turn around – six months from now instead of the intended farewell in 18 months.” The reason? “A sweeping independent report into chronic safety lapses at BP’s five U.S. refineries has concluded that lives might have been saved if Lord Browne had spent as much time on safety as he did trying to be green.”

A recent poll in Canada now places global warming as the most worrisome political priority for Canadians, ahead of perennial favorite health care and even the war in Afghanistan. At the same time last year, during a federal election, the concern barely even registered on the radar screens of electors. Even President Bush has given his imprimatur to the environment during his recent State of the Union address. What is happening?

We can’t say there were any significant scientific discoveries during the last year to make everyone change their minds so suddenly. So why have populations in Canada and the U.S. become suddenly so concerned?
My contention is that opinions on the matter reached a tipping point – to use Malcolm Gladwell’s apt term – sometime during the latter part of 2006. The exceptionally late onset of winter in eastern North America no doubt had a major impact on people’s thinking, but opinions and discourse had already changed noticeably during late summer and early fall.

What does this have to do with leadership and management? Simply put, political and business leaders now have to be perceived to be on the global warming “bandwagon” for fear of being branded a skeptic or, even worse, a “global warming denier”. Corporations and governments are now spending millions on establishing their environmental bone fides while spending billions more on becoming environmentally friendly. Investors are being told they can expect to make a killing by investing in ethanol production companies (while omitting to point out that the industry is heavily subsidized by governments) and other businesses profiting from global warming (everything from light bulb makers to wind farm operators). How much of this capital allocation has to do with actual risks and realities, as opposed to alarmist scenarios?

Back in 1975 Warren Bennis wrote a book called The Unconscious Conspiracy. Bennis argued that leaders were increasingly beset in the late 60s and 70s by an unconscious conspiracy of do-gooders and other assorted intervenors who were crippling the abilities of leaders to lead. Leaders were being forced to conform to ever changing standards of leadership and management while simultaneously being flooded by masses of irrelevant information and data. In addition, routine work was crowding out the non-routine, leaving leaders with limited power to lead their organizations as they saw fit.

The global warming issue is showing us that the “unconscious conspiracy” lives on, except that now, leaders are dealing with environmental issues rather than ones of rights and workplace democracy. Moreover, it appears that environmental concerns are crowding out others which are potentially just as important to the organization as well as society as a whole, such as growth and workplace safety.

Just as it was in 1975, there are still no easy solutions to the unconscious conspiracy, especially when it comes to the question of global warming. No amount of knowledge of the scientific trend could have forewarned of the sudden turn in public and political opinion. How should leaders deal with these situations? Here are some questions to think about when dealing with social trends.

  1. Are we just dealing with a fad or taste (e.g. fashion) or with a belief based on fear and emotion (e.g. global warming)? If it’s the former, then the organization can gear itself to constantly changing tastes and the consequences of failure to do so can be contained. If it’s the latter, then chances are that the leadership will have to give serious consideration to how this widespread social trend will impact on the organization.
  2. Is the social trend likely to crowd out reasoned debate and action? If yes, then the leadership and the organization must gear itself for this. Anyone who resisted equal rights and emancipation of various groups during the 60s and 70s quickly became viewed as a dinosaur, for good reason I might add. Moreover, their stonewalling led to government intervention in the form of affirmative action legislation. The same can be said of global warming today. Organizations and leaders who are openly skeptical are automatically tarred as global warming deniers and in cahoots with the oil industry. Informed debate is almost impossible in this situation, but doing nothing or stonewalling won’t make the problem go away either. On the other hand, focusing on environmental concerns while downplaying others, as seen in the BP case, are not a solution either.
  3. What can we do now and in the future to absorb the effects of this social trend? This obviously takes lot of thought and debate. It also means coming up with a long term strategy to deal with the issue while maintaining the focus of the organization.

What is clear is that these types of rapid changes of social mood and mass beliefs demand transformational and visionary leadership. Sitting around hoping that things will go back to the good old days won’t do. On the other hand, overreacting and becoming an “environmental” CEO are just as likely to be harmful to the organization as inaction. As with most things, the key is to maintain balance and perspective, and to not become a willing participant in the “unconscious conspiracy” weighing down one’s own leadership.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.