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A further wake up call in the fight against climate change

The recent IPCC report is a critical update on the fight against climate change. Steffen Boehm, Professor in Organisation and Sustainability, considers its key findings and implications.

17 August 2021

Why is this latest report so important?

First, it is the best scientific advice on climate change we have available globally.  It features 234 authors from 66 countries, plus hundreds of contributing authors. It includes more than 14,000 references and over 78,000 expert and government review comments were received. It has been a monumental scientific exercise.

Second and most importantly, it confirms that climate change is not something that will happen in the distant future. It is widespread and happening to us now. The changes we are seeing are rapid and intensifying. Just this year, we have seen wildfires, droughts, and extreme rainfall events in many parts of the world.

What new insights does it provide?

Forset on fireIt contains scientific evidence (some of which is new) that proves that the climatic changes we are observing are unprecedented in thousands, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of years. Bluntly, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases altogether right now, some of these changes will be irreversible for hundreds if not thousands of years, such as sea level rise.

It is now very likely that we will reach a 1.5 degrees Celsius global surface temperature warming since pre-industrial times by 2040. Much sooner if emissions are not substantially curbed soon. We are seeing more intense and more frequent rainfall in some areas, while rapidly decreasing precipitation in others. Snow cover and permafrost will be lost, with profound impacts on Arctic and sub-arctic mountain landscapes and societies. Our oceans are affected massively. Most of the carbon emissions we’ve emitted so far have been absorbed by the planet’s oceans, making them warmer, more acidic, and reducing their oxygen levels. This has manifold impacts on ocean ecosystems and the communities depending on them.

Importantly, the new report gives us a lot more regional insight into understanding how these changes are impacting and will increasingly impact specific places. This will bring climate change much closer to home to millions of people, helping them understand how climate change is already impacting them and will continue to do so for the rest of this century.

What actions need to be taken?

A factory pumping out air pollutionThere is absolutely no time to lose. Despite increasing global awareness and policy action, we are still seeing emissions rise dramatically. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a temporary halt on global greenhouse emissions, there are definite signs that the rebound effect will be dramatic, as was the case after the global financial crisis in 2008/9.

Whatever we have done on this planet in terms of climate mitigation over the past thirty years has not worked. While we now see a massive increase in renewable energy generation capacity, this has not actually displaced any fossil fuels whose use is still growing worldwide. The report is abundantly clear – if we fail to curb emissions significantly over the next ten years, then the impacts of climate change will be a lot more severe in the coming decades. Decisive policy action must be taken now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that decisive and coordinated government action can be swiftly taken if faced by a severe crisis. If climate change is recognised as an acute crisis, and even an emergency, then the world can still act.  While individual consumer choices are of course important, we now need coordinated, governmental action. We need a level playing field, and only governments can ensure that the radical changes we need to put into place will be implemented swiftly and in a just way. Large organisations, such as universities, and other ‘anchor organisations’, also play a crucial role, as they have the reach and impact needed to drive large-scale change.

What about business schools such as Exeter?

Business schools need to recognise that climate change is the biggest threat to businesses and economies globally. We need to teach our students about this threat, giving them tools and capabilities of how to address the climate challenge.

Crucially we need to stop pretending that business exists in a vacuum, outside the wider societal and ecosystem spheres. Business cannot exist without healthy, sustainable, and resilient societies and ecosystems. The way we do business has to change, anView of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moond quite profoundly. Business schools are in a unique position to lead this change, as we have the privilege of educating the next generation of business leaders. Climate change and its impacts on business needs to be taught from day one of every degree business schools are offering.

Our research focus also needs to change. The top business and management journals still publish very little on climate change, despite the research that is going on within business schools. Given the immense importance of climate change (and the wider ecological crises we are witnessing), top business and management journals should take a lead in covering the grand challenges of our times.

We also need to help businesses, policymakers, NGOs, and communities to make the changes required in practice, working directly with organisations in driving change. And, of course, we need to walk our talk. We need to radically reduce our own climate impact, and hence every business school should publish a sustainability report that includes a concrete (SMART) climate change action plan.

In summary, there is a huge amount to do, and there is no time to lose.

Photo by Magdalena Kula Manchee on Unsplash

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash


Professor Steffen BoehmProfessor Steffen Boehm is Professor in Organisation and Sustainability of the University of Exeter Business School.

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