Over the weekend, I read a disturbing article that quoted a potential presidential candidate who wrote, “We will keep fighting until we put a stop to ESG once and for all!”
ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and is a set of investment standards for a company’s behaviors. In other words, it’s a set of standards that takes more than profit into account. It was coined by the United Nations in 2005. Originially, the acronym was GES because they believed Governance was the most important of the three. They weren’t wrong then. They aren’t wrong now. They just didn’t know at the time the dire state of our environment in 2023.
The quote above is so incredibly dangerous because if the United States completely gives up on the environment now, catastrophe is certain. Even if we went to net zero today, there’s still no way to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Above 2 degrees, we will see more intensified storms, extreme heatwaves, dangerous flooding, drought, and fire conditions, crop failures, sea level rise, deathly disease increases, and massive loss of biodiversity in flora and fauna.
To be fair, many parts of the world are already seeing impacts. Whole towns such as Newtok, Alaska moved to avoid climate impacts. Tuvalu, the Pacific island country of 12,000 people halfway between Hawaii and Australia, announced at COP27 its plans to become the world’s first digital country in hopes to preserve its history and heritage. 40% of its capital district is underwater during high tide. Eventually, it will be completely lost to rising seas. The Colorado River, Lake Mead, the Great Salt Lake, and the Mississippi River are rapidly shrinking.
But, climate has always changed. It’s changed many times before in the history of the planet. So why does this chapter of climate change matter? The last time CO2 was as high as it is now was 3 million years ago. Modern humans didn’t exist then. The rapid rate change of CO2 we’ve seen in the last 100 years because of human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has never happened before in the history of the planet. And it’s that rate that is the key point.
Yes, the planet can adjust to changes. But it can’t adjust this much this quickly. If you lost $1 a month in income, you could adjust and manage for a certain amount of time. If you lost $100 a month, that would require a much bigger adjustment in your budget. If you lost $1000 a month, that would require an enormous adjustment and you may find yourself in serious trouble with basic needs because of that rate of change. The planet is under this same type of pressure.
So why bother doing anything? If we’re on the deck of the climate Titanic, should we just play on? No. Not by a long shot. For every fraction of a degree we can curtail warming, we will see impacts lessened, human lives saved, and species protected from extinction. It’s going to be a difficult ride toward a fully sustainable world, and if we commit to protecting each other, we will eventually get there. It will be painful, expensive, and massively inconvenient to say the least, but not impossible for humans to survive. But life will look different, very different, for centuries.
None of us will be here to see a fully sustainable world, but we all have a responsibility to future generations. Consider how much better off we’d be today if 100 years ago strong governance cared about the environment as much as they cared about money during the Industrial Revolution. Our world would be healthier, cleaner, happier, and more peaceful. It could be that way for future generations if we, and our governments, do the difficult work now of restoring and regenerating the health of our planet. That could be our legacy. We could be known as the generation who saved human life, and the lives of the species with whom we share this planet. Imagine that. That’s our collective goal.
No matter on which side of the aisle you sit, can we all agree that health and happiness are what we all want? Don’t we want clean air, water, and soil? Plentiful healthy food and fresh water? Can we start to talk about ESG not as this divisive, political policy as framed in the quote above but as a means of kindness, care, and concern for all? If that’s woke, then please let’s not allow ourselves to turn a blind eye and go back to sleep. Our survival depends upon our eyes and hearts being wide open.