When it comes to climate change, the question is not what needs to be done. We already know the answer: stop using fossil fuels, consume less red meat, insulate buildings, ban practices that result in environmental degradation such as deforestation, and shift to electric vehicles. The challenge is figuring out how to accomplish those things. 

“When it comes to climate change, it’s not a matter of ‘what’, but ‘how’.” – Roland Kupers - Click to Tweet 

Since the climate change sirens started sounding in the 1980s, there has been a lot of debate and very little progress toward remediation. We’ve procrastinated so long that we “now face a climate emergency, instead of a mere challenge,” says author, consultant, and Thunderbird Professor of Practice, Roland Kupers. Now, “we must make rapid, global changes.” That will be a complex undertaking.

The Science of Complexity 

The science of complexity Kupers says, “will help us drive change at the scale and speed that is required.” In his new book, A Climate Policy Revolution: What the Science of Complexity Reveals about Saving Our Planet, Kupers takes a deep dive into the science of complexity and how it can help humanity solve the increasingly complicated and urgent issue of climate change. 

In short, the science of complexity is the study of a system or problem as a whole and the many interconnected parts within the whole. If we look closely at an incredibly complex issue like climate change, we can see that it affects and is affected by many different disciplines – environmental sciences, politics, and economics, to name just a few.  

In order to make immediate, long-lasting changes, we must examine the relationships between those disciplines within the whole system. “For example, many discussions about climate change and climate policy are about changing the energy system. The problem is that the energy system sits at the heart of our economy and is deeply interconnected with many, many things. Understanding how it’s woven together and how an interwoven system changes, is essential.” 

“The science of complexity will help us drive change at the scale and speed that is required.” – Roland Kupers  -  Click to Tweet

We have an example of systemic change in action from the mid-2000s, when the U.S. “rapidly switched from a reliance on coal to natural gas” Kupers explains. “It took targeted mercury regulations, a few lone investors, independent researchers, and generous technology subsidies. In a stunningly short period of time, shale oil nudged out coal, and the U.S.’s CO2 emissions dropped by 10 percent.” 

“Applying what we know about the nature of such systemic change,” Kupers says, “we can replicate these patterns in order to improve transportation, reduce plastics consumption, and temper the environmental impact of middle-class diets.” 

Making these systemic changes could include “measures like making solar panel adoption more contagious, like a ‘good pandemic’,” Kupers says in an interview with Martin Reeves, Chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute. “The core of it is that you shift the nature of the system so that new, more desirable patterns emerge from it.” We’ve seen this kind of shift in our system due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Kupers believes it could have long-lasting climate benefits. 

“Understanding how systems are interconnected is essential for change.” – Roland Kupers - Click to Tweet

How COVID-19 May Help Fight Climate Change  

In order to slow the spread of coronavirus, governments, businesses, schools, and communities have adopted new protocols, routines, and values. People are working from home more and traveling less. We’re social distancing at stores and gatherings and looking for ways to interact in nature as we shift our daily routines to mitigate community transmission of the deadly virus. 

All of these shifts, Kupers says, can help fight the climate crisis. Not only because we’re producing less CO2, but also because our mindset has changed. Many people have a newfound respect and appreciation for nature, and scientists. As a society, we are generally more aware of the fragility of our systems and according to Kupers, we are seeing a collective realization that our species needs to be better prepared for long-term issues like another pandemic or the advserse impacts of climate change.

COVID-19 is a complex and urgent problem that has the potential to function as a catalyst for a complete, global paradigm shift. Only time will reveal the extent to which the pandemic creates a shift in awareness and values. Climate change is also a complex, global, and urgent problem. Dr. Kupers hopes that what we’ve learned from the pandemic will translate to real, lasting changes for our planet as well. 

Complex global problems require complex global solutions, and as our current approaches to climate change continue to fall short, Kupers says, “we cannot afford to stop exploring alternatives.”  

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