An Open Letter To
I’ve been working in the salt mines of complexity for two decades.
My work involves figuring out - in practice - how to act effectively in the face of our most complex challenges.
Watching you holding our political leadership to account has been one of the few high points of a very long two decades. I actually cheered.
Other than a few other moments, however, I’ve been unable to shake the feeling that something is very wrong about our approach to tackling the climate emergency.
As the hour is so urgent, the hands of the clock so close to midnight, and the shadows dark, I feel compelled to reach out to you.
I am reaching out to share a story and to extend an invitation.
Here’s the story.
In the winter of 2009, the climate talks in Copenhagen collapsed. There was widespread shock.
One of the organisations I was advising at the time was the Climate Action Network (CAN), arguably the world’s largest climate coalition.
I wasn’t very surprised the talks collapsed because I had seen from the inside the fragility of the negotiations.
I had seen that despite efforts, key differences on issues of equity had not been addressed between the superpowers of the South and the superpowers of the North. These unresolved differences led ultimately to the collapse of talks at Copenhagen.
After the collapse the question in everyone’s hearts and minds was, “Now what?”
The CAN leadership hired me in order to help them answer this question and facilitate the creation of a post-Copenhagen strategy.
My starting point for this work was to pose the question,
“What is the science saying we should do?”
After interviewing a wide range of people, including scientists, the answer I got was relatively simple.
The science in 2009 was saying that global emissions need to peak in 5 years and then decline every year by a gigatonne of CO2e for the next fifty years. Achieving that would still only mean a 50% chance of staying under 1.5C.
I then started interviewing everyone I could. My question, again, was relatively simple. “What is your peaking strategy?” I asked. I asked lots of big international NGOS, a few governments and lots of CAN members this question.
Much to my dismay the answers I got ranged from “we don’t have one” to “Signing an accord at Copenhagen was our peaking strategy.” I reminded people the real goal was not a treaty but averting dangerous climate change. It was about real molecules.
Disturbed, I probed further.
I asked, “Assume we signed a legally binding treaty, then what would have happened?”
The answers I got back blew my mind.
One person told me they believed that their job, as a climate policy person, was to deliver on a treaty. Then their job was done. One person told me they had planned on taking a long holiday.
“But then who would implement the treaty? Who would actually operationalise the treaty commitments?”
The answers I got amounted to little more than a shrug. That was someone else’s job.
“But who?!” I asked, dumbfounded.
I got no real answer.
I realised, with shock and anger, that we, as a planet, had no strategy to achieve peaking within five years, nor an actual strategy to reduce global emissions by a gigatonne per year.
We were almost certainly heading into overshoot.
Not only that, it wasn’t at all clear to me who would do the work, the actual operational nitty gritty of taking action. If there was no “how” then there was no “who” either.
There was more.
I discovered the global climate community was gripped by massive cognitive dissonance. People were in almost complete denial that we had no peaking strategy and that the most likely scenario was overshoot.
What I realised is that much of the work within the UNFCCC was what I call 2-dimensional, it was, in other words, on paper. And it didn’t even add up in theory, let alone in practice.
What we needed, I believe, are 3-dimensional efforts, or to put it in simple terms, we needed to stop writing reports about action. We need to act.
Soon after handing in my very 2D recommendations to CAN, I conceived of the Gigatonne Lab focusing on the question:
“How can we reduce global emissions by one gigatonne of CO2e in two years?”
Since 2009, a small, desperate, and ragtag rebel alliance has been working on this question.
We scratched our heads, we brainstormed, we pitched ideas, we have asked for help and we were rejected again and again. “That’s not possible,” people told us again and again. We didn’t win any popularity awards for pointing out the implications of “not possible.”
When I explained what was needed to one of my mentors, he dismissed what I was saying by way of analogy.
He pointed at a building across the street, some 20 feet away.
“It’s like you’re saying we need to leap that distance in a single bound. It can’t be done.”
“But that’s what the science is saying we need to do,” I protested.
“It can’t be done,” he repeated firmly, ending the conversation.
The Gigatonne Lab was a decade long experiment on understanding why we are unable to take action in the face of the climate emergency.
Why won’t people act? We found out. We found out by inviting people to act - and act at scale.
We didn’t invite people to write reports or to attend conferences. We invited people to help reduce global emissions at scale. By and large they ended up looking a lot like confused robots, their programming violated by the demands of the real world. But every single time they did, we took notes, and we learnt something.
We discovered that it is true that “in the mind of the expert there are few possibilities, while in the mind of the beginner there are many.”
All the while we tinkered with our approach. We tinkered with an operational model for how to practically and effectively take action in the face of dangerous climate change.
We have done this slow, patient and persistent work for a decade. We believe that we have worked our way to a credible success scenario for averting dangerous climate change.
The time for slow, patient tinkering however is over.
Now comes the invitation...
In pondering my post-Copenhagen experiences, and our current climate emergency, what I realised was this.
We are protesting and demanding action. But it’s not working.
Michah White, one of the founders of Occupy wrote,
“Activists have not been passive. For decades, we have tried every tactic to shift the course of our governments. We have voted, written editorials and manifestos, donated money, held signs, protested in marches, blocked streets, shared links, signed petitions, held workshops, knitted scarves, learn to farm, turned off the television, programmed apps, engaged in direct action, committed vandalism, launched legal challenges against pipelines . . . and occupied the financial districts. All this has been for naught. A new approach to activism and a new kind of protest are desperately needed.”
Why is it not working?
It’s not working because we continue to put our faith in the authorities.
It’s not working because we believe that the power to change lies in the hands of great men (and a few great women).
Simply demanding that they fix the problem will not work.
We are giving away our power.
Our institutions, particularly in a crisis, will fall back to doing what they know how to do.
And what they know how to do is make plans on paper. Unfortunately, these strategic plans have a 0% chance of success.
Brave climate scientists like Kevin Anderson have been pointing out since the Paris Accord that the numbers simply don’t add up to a solution.
The other error, described as a “classic error” by Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz, is that the authorities confuse complex adaptive challenges for technical problems.
When addressing a technical challenge, key parameters don’t change. For example, gravity doesn’t change while we try to build planes. With complex challenges, the key parameters are constantly shifting.
One consequence of this is that the actors involved change their behaviour as the situation itself changes, adding to the complexity.
Treating the climate crisis as a purely technical challenge will not work. Complex challenges, unlike purely technical challenges, cannot be tackled just by experts and technocrats.
There is not enough money in the world to outright buy solutions to complex challenges. Tackling them requires multiple communities investing in other forms of capital, such as social, human, intellectual and physical of their own will.
What all this means is that we are certain to fail unless we change our approach. Not just certain, but mathematically certain to fail.
The latest estimate from the IPCC is that landmass temperatures between 1880-2018 have increased 1.41 degrees C.
We are in overshoot. This is a hard fact.
We are on this path because we lack a strategy.
Unless we are able to create a credible strategy, we will lose, and we lose spectacularly.
For a strategy to be credible it must meet three criteria.
It must be practical, that is, we can see ourselves doing it without a requirement for some yet undiscovered technology. It must be rigorous, that is the numbers must add up to a solution that averts dangerous climate change. Finally, it must be affordable, that is, we should be able to raise the capital required to implement the scenario.
These three criteria mean that a successful strategic response to the climate crisis must above all be actionable.
I suspect that you, like so many of us, are impatient for a practical approach that the other adults you’ve met with have yet to offer. So, this is our invitation:
We invite you to join us in helping us co-design a response following through on your call to action.
Join us in forming the Green Helmets, a new planetary force for averting dangerous climate change.
Teams of Green Helmets will be made up of diverse people drawn from diverse backgrounds, including people directly impacted by the challenge, with the financial resources and technical support to take action.
We will bring together people from indigenous wisdom traditions, from engineering schools, from the financial sector, from government and from grassroots communities, both urban and rural.
We do not need these people to form more networks or communities of practice. We do not need people to simply gather at global conferences to profess their green credentials.
We need to form disciplined teams able to work at the pace needed to deliver real results.
Each cohort of Green Helmets will take responsibility for abating 1 megatonne (MT) of CO2e per year. The temporal target is as important as the CO2e target.
If we had 1,000 teams of Green Helmets hitting this target, we will be able to achieve actual gigatonne scale reductions.
However, there is a way of increasing the odds of success.
The more cohorts we create, the easier the task gets.
If we succeeded in creating 2,000 cohorts, the technical target per cohort drops to 0.5MT/CO2e per year. 3,000 cohorts mean the technical target drops to 0.33MT/CO2e per year and so on.
We need to create thousands of teams who have the resources, talent and reporting tools to undertake this work.
Our work is demonstrating practically how such teams are put together and how they will work.
We will be bringing together the first cohorts of Green Helmets to start work in India in 2020, focusing on energy efficiency.
These cohorts will work in 6-month cycles to practically implement efforts that will result in reducing CO2e.
They will be provided financial, technical and other practical support towards achieving reduction targets.
Imagine for a moment watching a dashboard of cohorts around the world “going live.” Imagine that every time a team “goes live” the odds get a bit better, the monumental nature of the task a little easier.
Imagine every time you speak, scores of cohorts come into being.
Imagine for a moment, cities and regions, corporations and BINGOs, local and central government, and groups of retired but active citizens, all autonomously forming cohorts of Green Helmets.
Imagine for a moment tens of Green Helmets, then hundreds and then thousands. Imagine watching global emissions flatline and then actually start to decline as a direct impact of the number of Green Helmets in the world.
Critics will point out that we do not actually know how to abate even 1 megatonne per year, let alone a gigatonne a year for 50 years.
The Green Helmets will need to learn by doing (and unlearning) their way at breakneck speed, to what it means to be effective. And it will not be easy, but it is entirely possible. We have been creating such teams for 20 years now, working on issues ranging from violence against women to ending global overfishing.
This is what I have learnt from working two decades in the salt mines of complexity. It is hard; but it is also entirely, utterly and totally possible.
It requires disciplined, coordinated and collective action. It requires us to work together.
Creating teams where diverse people come together to take collective action is the real innovation, something too few of us have seen or experienced.
These teams represent nothing less than the seeds of a new social contract. This is the real systemic response to the climate crisis.
Recently, you made the observation, ‘This is the part where you expect me to speak about hope, but without action there is no hope’
Without action there is no hope. We want to act. We hope you will be inspired by our approach and be moved to help us, both by sharing Green Helmets with your audiences and by providing your input.
We hope you will join us.
On behalf of the 10-in-10 Team.
 Here are some numbers to give us a sense of what reducing emissions by a gigatonne of CO2e a year means:
447,000 diesel cars or 399,000 petrol cars emit about 1 MT of CO2e per year
A single return flight from London to New York emits about 1.7 tonnes of CO2e, so if 588,000 passengers stopped flying this route then that would save 1 MT CO2e per year. There are currently about 4 million passengers flying this route a year.
350 wind turbines are required to generate enough electricity to save 1 Mt CO2e/year. For comparison, if the same turbines were offshore, you’d only need about 250 of them to save 1 Mt CO2e/year.
There are 1000 MT in a single GT (and there are 1000 kT in a single MT).
We multiply those numbers by 1000 to get a sense of what a gigatonne means.
For example, if we replaced a single gigatonne of CO2e emissions from coal with wind we would need to build 250,000 turbines and get them operational in one year.
A gigatonne is roughly all of Germany’s emissions in a single year, or roughly, all the emissions from the continent of Africa.