Taking the long perspective

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We’re all familiar with the “fight or flight” response that we humans exhibit when faced with a threat. It’s been key to the survival of our species but could arguably be getting in the way of making effective decisions about the long term future of our planet. Our ability to face immediate problems isn’t the same when facing delayed or longer term issues, such as climate change, since it’s not such an obvious threat as encountering a predator in the wild.

As a result, climate change doesn’t capture the headlines or our attention in the way that more conventional and immediate news stories do. Its long term nature provides fuel for discussion and scepticism despite a large body of scientific evidence reporting alarming trends. That’s not to say that extreme events associated with climate change aren’t reported, such as the on-going drought in California or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, just that the links to climate change aren’t always emphasised.

President Obama identified that we need to switch our focus from the short term to the long term in his speech at the opening of the conference earlier this week. He said:

For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late.  And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us.  But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won’t be too late for them.

In many countries, including the UK, the cycle of party politics and elections mean that decision making beyond the five years of a specific government is often less important than immediate action to preserve approval ratings and opinion polls. Perhaps this means that it’s up to other organisations and businesses to buck the trend and seek sustainable long term solutions over short term profit. One tree-planting charity in Scotland is thinking over a 250 year horizon – a challenge to all of us to change our paradigm and move away from the short-termism that blights our organisational structures.

The longer term economic benefits associated with improved environmental performance are increasingly recognised by business, and it’s likely that private investment will take on a greater role in the progression of climate solutions. However the argument is not completely won, and short term “wins” and adaptations to existing processes such as carbon offsetting, or the replacement of harmful pollutants and pesticides with slightly less harmful ones are still the norm.

It’s time for a radical shift to new techniques and processes rather than endlessly patching up old ones – but the question is whether international decision makers are brave enough to rise above party politics, approval ratings and media demands and make binding long term commitments to ensure a more sustainable future for us all.

What are your radical ideas to bring about long term change? Let us know in the comments below!

Authored by Luke Strickland and Martin Broderick