Judging success from the 2019 UN Climate Summit: look for next steps, not long-term goals

The United Nations Climate Change Summit is going on in New York as I write. World leaders, activists and experts are gathered to make another push towards tackling the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg has made an impassioned speech. Donald Trump decided to go to another event on religious freedom. The struggle goes on.

What are we to make of it, the vast majority of us not in New York but following the developments with more or less sense of frustration? Much of the discussion seems to focus on goals; when are we aiming for a carbon-neutral? The UK Government under Theresa May was shifting to a goal of carbon-neutral by 2050. The Scottish Government (where I live) is ahead of that – aiming for 2045. Others fret about the fact that China is still building coal-fired power stations (which will presumably operate for decades). Yes others point to the millions employed around the world in carbon extraction and refining, and wonder how they can be helped to transition into other fruitful work, in the energy sector and elsewhere.

Let’s look at this situation from a Solution Focused (SF) perspective. Agreement on the direction of travel – decarbonisation – seems to be becoming increasingly clear. That’s our platform, the general thing we’re hoping for. The precise goal – 2050, 2045, whatever – is much less important. Things will happen between now and then – events, developments, breakthroughs, crises – which will buffet things one way and another. In SF we don’t really work with goals – they may be there or not, but the key thing is useful change – movement in broadly the right direction today.

So the key success measure for the UN Climate Change Summit should not be the goals (welcome though movement in that direction might be), but the immediate next steps. What is happening by the end of the week that would not have happened otherwise? Who is doing what? Who is connecting with whom? What new impetus is there? The risk of agreeing goals is that politicians could mistake the agreement for the action. The current generation of world leaders will be long gone by 2050 – who will be taking accountability?

And it’s not just next steps that we must be looking for – it’s steps in a newly coherent direction. I wrote a while ago about the difference between SF and ‘Kaizen’, the ancient Japanese art of making gradual improvements. That’s a valuable thing to be doing – but simply taking small steps along a well-trodden path is not particularly brave or innovative. SF work promotes the crystallisation of small next steps in a new direction, with a new awareness, with new purpose.

So by all means let’s support the Climate Change Summit and those participating. And look for new awareness, new directions and small next steps. Here’s one area where the goal is not the point.

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