As I have begun working in the field of climate change, I’m continually struck by how much of the issue—and how much the efficacy of our solutions—depends on how we think about it. Climate change poses tremendous challenges in the material world, from rising sea levels to heat waves to financial risk, property depreciation and legal liability. Many of these impacts we can’t control, or gaining control of them is precisely the challenge. But our responses to climate change begin with ideas, thoughts, paradigms and messages. All of those are 100% under our control from start to finish. The single most effective tool to fight climate change is the idea.
Framed that way, it may not seem as trivial as it might under other circumstances to draw a lesson from Star Trek. The science fiction show created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s has a long cultural reach even into our own time; there was a new Star Trek picture that came out last year (2016) and a new series premiered just this fall. But let’s talk about a lesson of paradigm-shifting and idea-sharpening—and one specifically applicable to businesses and industries facing climate change challenges—from the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it or don’t remember it, I’ll explain what I’m talking about.
At the very beginning of the film, a planet out in space mysteriously explodes. It turns out the planet that blew up was the key energy production facility for the Klingons, a race of hostile and militaristic aliens who, at least up until that time in the Star Trek franchise, had been generally portrayed as villains to the show’s heroes, the Federation, which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the other principal good guys serve. In Star Trek VI Spock explains to a boardroom of Federation bigwigs that the planet’s explosion has poisoned the Klingons’ atmosphere, and their world will be dead in 50 years. The Klingons, a warlike people, spend most of their economy on weapons and military assets. Unless they change, they lack the resources to overcome the catastrophe. Their answer is to try to make peace with their old enemies, the Federation, because war has suddenly become prohibitively expensive—at least if they want to survive.
At the time it came out, Star Trek VI was intended as an allegory for the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film was released in December 1991, the same month that the USSR dissolved. The rapid collapse of the Soviet empire was precipitated by a failed coup in August of that year by Stalinist hard-liners who, alarmed at the prospect of peaceful cooperation with the West, sought to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and re-ignite the Cold War. But putting the weighty issues of war and peace aside, the pivot point of Star Trek VI contains a lesson that businesses and industries can—and indeed must—learn in the era of climate change. Simply put, they must learn to see the world, and the future, differently.
The Klingons of Star Trek are a proud and accomplished people with a rich cultural heritage. But, as the film reminds us, their predominant paradigm is one of conflict: they reach for the sword first, and as a result, warfare and fighting is both what they’re good at and what they’re known for. In the movie, Klingon leader Gorkon (played by David Warner) faces a hard sell in convincing his own people that, in order to face changing circumstances, they must try not only something new, but something that might seem utterly at odds with their governing philosophy. It’s a dangerous choice. In fact Gorkon is assassinated before his initiative comes to fruition, and our heroes Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are blamed. That’s the set-up for the film, but the real lesson is about shifting paradigms and making creative choices.
Now shift the lesson into the business realm, here in the United States in the year 2017. Businesses, especially those in the traditional corporate structure, tend to see the future in immediate short-term increments. Profits need to appear every quarter, and they must be reflected in the value returned to shareholders. The American business sector is extremely good at maximizing profits, in all sorts of industries and service sectors, on this short-term future model. We are as good at it as the Klingons of Star Trek are at fighting wars in outer space. Climate change, however, is such a difficult challenge for our businesses and our economy because it does not respond on the shortened time-scales that business is trained to prioritize. The tools that the business sector has built, sharpened and perfected aren’t really built for this problem, just as the Klingons’ warships and weapons can’t do much against an atmosphere slowly filling with poison. The prescient and visionary in the business sector, like Gorkon in Star Trek, recognize that they must use a different tool, or at least change how they use the tools they already have.
Climate change is a challenge (and an opportunity) that will play out over a time-scale of years and decades, not fiscal quarters. Shifting a company or industry’s vision of the future horizon, pushing it out 10 years instead of 4 months, yields a completely different picture with a completely different landscape. This is much harder to do than it is to say. In my own experience I have seen clients and businesses make commitments to purchase assets—even long-term assets like timberlands—primarily from the motivation of short-term results, such as a sale that can be accomplished in a short period of time or depreciation that can be taken right away. Few businesses think in terms of “build and hold,” for the long term, because that generally yields smaller profits in the short term. Even accountants routinely discount big payoffs laying ahead in the future by the “time value of money.” This paradigm is not how climate change works, and it’s not how businesses will harness the opportunities presented by it, much less manage the risks.
The simple truth is that businesses that are willing to reinvent themselves, and look to a longer-term future than the next quarter or the next fiscal year, are going to weather the storm, and find the profits and benefits that come from dealing creatively with climate change. The businesses and industries that fall back on the old ways, especially the old ways of thinking, are going to be left behind. I’m talking about more than just changing your company’s auto fleet over to electric cars or locating your new corporate headquarters in an LEED certified sustainable building. These are good gestures, but they won’t get you across the long, deep pond that climate change represents. I’m talking about finding new concepts and new ways of thinking about investment, about risk, about labor, regulation, automation and progress, right down to the very definition of what “profit” or “shareholder value” means. Finding a new tool, a new way to do business, is not tantamount to going out of business, or of giving up value that doing business in the old ways may have built over time. But it’s a new time now. Climate change is not just changing the climate or the environment. It’s changing everything.
In one scene in Star Trek VI, the new Klingon leader (played by Rosanna DeSoto) is urged by a military aide to launch a sneak attack against the Federation, while they (the Klingons) still have time. The leader replies, “War is obsolete, General. As we are in danger of becoming.” Not to spoil it, but at the end of the film the Klingons ultimately choose a different tool than war. Ultimately they not only survive, they thrive, prosper and rise again. They thought creatively about their options in the face of a truly awesome challenge. That must be our response within the business community too. We must boldly go where no one has gone before.
(Header image is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here).