In my annual review of big themes in sustainability and business — in other words, how companies manage environmental and social issues and opportunities — I’ve always included a changing climate as a big story. But it’s now not an annual story; it’s permanent. The list of extreme, tragic, and very costly weather events this year — record heat in Europe, hail in June in Mexico, record floods in Nebraska, endless Australian bush fires, and epic destruction from storms in Mozambique and the Bahamas – was shocking. But sadly, it’s now the norm.
A changing climate is and will always be the top story, the context behind everything (at least in the near future). But that said, there was a shift this year in how seriously the world took the issue, which does merit highlighting. With that broad context, let’s look at 8 fascinating developments in sustainability from 2019.
1. The climate protest movement explodes
At the end of the year, Time Magazine named 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as their youngest “Person of the Year” ever. Beginning in late 2018 and stretching into 2019, she created a global movement, spoke truth to power, and collected more than 10 million followers on social media.
Here’s what her leadership helped accomplish: In January, tens of thousands of Belgian teens heeded her call and marched weekly on the EU headquarters in Brussels. On March 15, millions marched all over the world. In September, people gathered around the U.N. climate meeting, which Greta traveled by boat to attend (highlighting a growing “flight shaming” movement).
Young people are leading the way on climate action, and business should take note. These Gen Z kids will soon become voters and buyers, and Gen Z and Millennials are already half the global workforce. It should be unsurprising, then, that another critical protest movement that grew this year came from employees. More than 8,700 Amazon associates signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the company develop an aggressive climate action plan. Microsoft employees staged a walk-out in September to protest the company’s “complicity in the climate crisis.” Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must have a strong climate strategy.
2. Awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis rises
Environmentalists have long debated whether “gloom and doom” messaging motivates action or just depresses people. It’s hard to say, but this year we did get some high-quality doom. In the well-publicized book The Uninhabitable Earth, author David Wallace-Wells made the case that panic may be warranted, showing what warming of 3, 4, or more degrees Celsius could look like (and it’s not pretty).