What can we learn from the geopolitics of climate change?

What can we learn from the geopolitics of climate change?


Last month, the Federation of European Risk Managers (FERMA) published the results of its annual survey of risk managers across its member states. Predictably, geopolitics and climate change are two of the five top risks for CEO’s. This is hardly surprising, as both appear almost daily in the news under these broad themes:

  • Weather-related events, such as fires and flooding across the world, and their tragic consequences.
  • Political announcements, such as the UK Prime Minister's statement on 20 September effectively making a U-turn on net-zero pledges, and the decision to open up a North Sea oilfield.
  • Activism, events and conferences, such as protests, and Climate Week NYC, held in parallel with the United Nations General Assembly

As individuals, employees and leaders, we all have our part to play in tackling climate change – and we all have our priorities. For the victims of weather-related events in places such as Greece and Libya, rebuilding their lives is a priority. They are emerging from a crisis. For the British electorate, managing the cost-of-living crisis is their priority. For activists and policymakers, ensuring policies are in place to slow down and reduce carbon emissions, and meet targets are their priorities.

One thing I have learned over the years working with controversial subject matter and a compelling need for change, all those involved – directly or indirectly – need to be part of the solution. Where there are competing priorities, there are invariably conflicting opinions, agendas and sensitivities. This I learned when I lived and worked in post-conflict countries. However, I also learned that to move forward and bring together conflicting opinions, combined with actions and compliance, all parties must come together with a solution. In the post-conflict context, this is been self-sustaining peace.

In the case of Climate Change, it is, as we all know, a tough nut to bring absolute consensus and commitment among countries across the planet with the solutions. Whilst many countries are taking the lead with the charge towards reaching net zero, there are equally as many blaming those countries for causing it. Both geopolitically and environmentally, it is one of the biggest challenges we face. Even the United Nations (UN) member states, the largest geopolitical organisation, are rather less united on the whole subject of the path towards achieving net zero.

The UN-hosted Conference of Parties (COP) has been the platform for bringing together opinions on resolving the consequences of climate change, combined with actions and compliance. However, COP27 last year had mixed results, with geopolitics reported as undermining successful outcomes, among other blockages. And with COP 28 just a few weeks away, we are already seeing similar headlines. Parties seem to be drifting apart, not coming together.

In issues escalation and crisis management, this too is not unusual and is often the biggest challenge to those managing the parties – drift and lack of consensus. Competing priorities and different opinions, and in many cases, cross-border or cultural considerations all contribute to this. However, there are three approaches we should all understand when addressing such challenges in issues and crisis management:

Understand the problem, cause and effect

This applies to any risk or crisis.  Understand the root cause of the issue or risk and its impact. Current industrial pay disputes in the UK are an example of this. The problem is shrinking pay in real terms caused by economic and inflationary pressures. The effects are people are struggling to live.

In the case of climate change, the problem is carbon emissions causing climate change. But the root cause is the consumption of fossil fuels and their derivatives. We either need to consume less or deal with emissions. The route that has emerged is to deal with the emissions or provide replacement solutions.  This continues with green-tech companies coming up with all kinds of alternatives too.

Either way, fossil fuel companies are an example of both part of the problem and the solution. We have a “Just Stop Oil” activism movement that seeks to address the cause. A “Just stop buying oil” campaign however would help eliminate the problem. But that would bring a set of other economic and geopolitical issues of course.

Discussion, debate, respect

All parties are passionate when it comes to articulating priorities and influencing outcomes, particularly when they have opposing views – this is our competitive nature and it is normal. We all think we are right. But if we were, we wouldn’t be trying to resolve an escalating issue or prevent a crisis. We would all be getting on with the outcome. Having a place or invitation at the table, understanding why each has a different perspective, and respecting each party's views is part of the process. We can disagree, but that is part of the process – to come to an agreement and a way forward to mitigate the risks. This is why the UK pay disputes are failing, and why at COP28, all views need to be discussed, debated and respected regardless of who is hosting or presiding.

Stick to the agreement

Once again, straight out of my peacekeeping experience, for any way forward in risk mitigation and crisis management, sticking to the agreed deal is vital. Furthermore, when working toward this agreement, as American educator Stephen Colvey says “Begin with the end in mind”.  This is a fundamental point we teach in the crisis management module on CrisisFit®, our Executive Leadership Course in Crisis Management.  When we renegade with any aspect of an agreement or deal, or we are perceived as backtracking, it erodes trust. Just ask any UK industrial leader about the U-turn from the Prime Minister last week on the timeline to achieve net-zero targets.

Another point to bear in mind is that many agree on resolutions or a way ahead with an issue without full consideration of what is achievable or realistic. They often want to get the deal done and out of the room. The risks associated with this include loss of credibility and reputation or worse. Rather debate and find a solid and achievable path forward versus something that risks crumbling at the first hurdle.

When it comes to crisis management – whether it is resolving a pay dispute, saving the planet, or anything close to home, we all have a tendency to be very focused on finding a solution and, at the same time managing the consequences of the problem. But understanding the problem, its causes and effects requires a lot of listening.  Only then can a robust and reliable way ahead can be agreed upon, thus increasing the chances of success.

Photo CreditNikolay Maslov on Unsplash


FERMA Risk Managers Survey:   European Risk Manager Report 2022

UN Climate Change:  Conference of Parties

Summary of UK industrial issues: 2022–2023 United Kingdom industrial disputes and strikes

Stephen Colvey:  Begin With the End in Mind®