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23/01/2019 4:00 AM AEDT | Updated 23/01/2019 6:37 AM AEDT

Business Leaders Care Even Less About Climate Change Than They Did Last Year

Only 19 percent of chief executives say it is a serious risk to their business, a new poll finds.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Britain's Prince William and natural historian Sir David Attenborough, watch the screening of Attenborough's new documentary "Our Planet" at Davos. Climate change may be a theme at the gathering, but a new poll finds it's less a priority for business. 

DAVOS, Switzerland ― With all the evidence of a coming climate catastrophe, which threatens the very future of civilization, one would expect humanity to put every effort into solving the crisis. But time and again, we see how difficult it is for the majority of people to rise to the challenge.

This is particularly true of the business community, which in the West is built largely on ensuring that the next quarter’s profits roll in to keep shareholders happy and result in executive bonuses.

A telling piece of evidence presented at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting this week in Davos is hidden away in a flagship survey of 1,378 chief executives from more than 90 countries. It shows that concerns about climate change and environmental damage have sharply fallen over the past year.

In 2018, the annual poll by professional services provider PwC showed a rather paltry 31 percent of chief executives were “extremely concerned” by climate change. The problem then barely squeezed into the top 10 perceived threats, below issues such as increasing tax burdens and the availability of key skills.

But this year, with rising alarm over trade threats and populism, only 19 percent of business leaders highlighted the risks of climate change, which fell to 13th place on their list of priorities.

“I am rather shocked by this,” said Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, visibly shaken when I showed her the PwC results. “By focusing on short term profits, they are missing this moment in history. For me, we are at a moment where we need to step back and look deeply into ourselves and how we stand as a species and internalize the state of emergency and then decide if we want to be on the right side of history or not.

“The fact that CEOs’ biggest concern in the PwC report is overregulation tells me they do not understand and have not read the IPPC report on climate change.” The report, published in October by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, found that the world is rapidly running out of time for avoiding catastrophic climate change. 

Many CEOs believe in their minds that if they are talking about climate change and creating some initiatives around it, then they are taking care of it, Morgan said. But because they have not faced up to the issue for so long, she added, “we need a whole different approach with all hands on deck. There is a point of no return where we cannot turn back the impacts and the world can be overrun by runaway climate change.”

Morgan called for young people to rise up and engage in nonviolent direct action “to bring this message to corporate leaders in a different way.”

Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris climate agreement and now the convener of Mission 2020, a global initiative to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, said she was hugely disappointed CEOs failed to see the gravity of the situation. Especially, she added, when there are enormous opportunities from tackling climate change.

“Businesses are in the position they are as a result of a focus on quarterly profit statements. If you plan corporate strategy around this, then this is the result you get,” Figueres said.

Business leaders are not alone in failing to focus on longer-term dangers at the expense of what is currently in their face, Figueres added. “We all do this. We tend to focus on the exceedingly urgent short term rather than the much larger consequences over the longer term.”

Figueres used the metaphor of a doctor telling someone they may suffer a heart attack in the future unless they start now to exercise more and eat healthier food. Despite this, the patient often ignores the advice and focuses on more immediate obligations.

This interpretation is supported by the research of Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University, who found that humans are not wired to deal effectively with long-term problems. 

In an interview with NPR, Gilbert said we are much more likely to take alarm at terrorism. Global warming, he said, is “not something that threatens us this afternoon, but rather something that threatens us in the ensuing decades.”

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