Beyond 2100: climate change coaching for future generations

Beyond 2100: climate change coaching for future generations

Bushfire in Tasmania, Australia

25 May 2022

When governments, public bodies and businesses say that their climate change planning is for future generations, most of them operate with short timescales, such as 2030 or 2050. Why do we struggle with planning for future climate needs, asks Tanya Nash, and how can coaches help leaders keep an eye on our direction of travel and improve the outcomes for future generations?

I was recently stunned to realise that it was exactly 30 years ago I graduated from university, a newly qualified Gen X environmental scientist. Aside from getting over the shock of ‘where did that time go?’, I was also sobered by the realisation that while I was taught about the dangers of climate change on my degree course, we are still pumping more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere than ever before.

In 1968, the Stanford Research Institute reported that fossil fuel consumption would increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to severe environmental damage. For over 50 years we have been aware about the potential devastation of carbon emissions. Where might we have been if, in the 70s and 80s, we had considered and, importantly, acted on the implications for future generations, instead of kicking the can down the road.

Now, in this present day, what does this mean for our future generations, the generations that will be most affected by the consequences of our increasingly chaotic and extreme weather patterns, and how are we considering their perspectives when we coach?

Try mapping out the timeline of the youngest person you know, the critical points in their lives from birth to the end of their hopefully long-lived life, and you will soon see how quickly we can get from the start of a century to the end of that century in one lifetime. People born now will hopefully live well into the 22nd century, and their children even further. But it is on these future generations, those yet to be born, that we have placed the largest human and natural cost of our climate inaction.

However, few are looking at the needs of those who are yet to come, and the implications the decisions we make today have on their lives. When society, governments, public bodies and businesses say they are planning for future generations, most take much shorter timescales, such as 2030 (and with some exceptions, 2050) as their frame of reference. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which assesses the science related to climate change, still only considers climate predictions up to 2100 in its reports, even though the limited research available suggests that under most scenarios, temperatures are going to continue to rise throughout the 2200s.

Why do we struggle with planning for future needs?

Evidence suggests that decision making is strongly influenced by a bias towards the present, a myopia which poses significant risks to current and future citizens’ long-term interests. These risks are heightened by short-term emergencies, such as natural disasters, financial crises and global pandemics, which distract leaders from addressing long-term needs.

Evidence from the behavioural sciences shows us that despite caring about the needs of future generations, most people regard issues such as climate change as being non-urgent and psychologically distant risks – spatially, temporally, and socially.

What drives this behaviour?

It is in our human nature to be impatient, which together with other aspects of the human condition such as cognitive bias, attention deficit, moral disengagement, and age, make it difficult for individuals to see beyond short-term priorities.

Constitutional, institutional and political factors also play their part, with short-term election cycles driving short-term success, and entrenched political divisions inhibiting cross-party agreements on major long-term issues.

As we saw at COP26, where the fossil fuel industry had the largest delegation, powerful voices from special interests drown out the quieter voices advocating for the future. This in turn undermines positive expectations by the public about the behaviours of policymakers, and the level of belief that they have that the policy choices for future generations will work.

All of the factors above are compounded by uncertainty about what the future brings and the complexity of the systems in which we exist.

It is in this context that leaders are struggling to prioritize the needs of future generations when tackling existential issues such as climate change. But it is also in this context where coaching has the potential to help.

Coaches can work with clients on broadening and challenging assumptions about who or what we mean by future generations. Professor Andrew Flynn and Dr Alan Netherwood have explored decision-making by public bodies in Wales which already have a legal obligation to balance the needs of future generations with those of the present. They found that most activity and action for the future is focused only on the long-term interest of the current generation.

We know that action to tackle climate change is a complex and wicked issue that is interconnected with a range of other problems and concerns. We also know that working with a trans-generational focus means engaging with significant uncertainty.

Coaching can help business leaders, politicians, policy makers and interventionists navigate the complexity and uncertainty of the systems we exist in now, while keeping an eye on the direction of travel in terms of outcomes for future generations.

We have seen that to work in complexity, leaders need both to act and be different, often out of kilter with the institutional norms in which they operate. This takes courage and confidence, but supporting leaders to be brave and to take difficult steps is the bread and butter of most coaches’ work. It is what we do day to day, but with a shift in focus.

We have a role in helping clients make sense of the complex systems in which they work, helping them identify the patterns and connections that can lead to solutions and action to address climate change for the long-term.

We can encourage clients to look beyond the people they normally engage with. Who else could they be talking with about what they are doing to address climate change and the needs of future generations? Who are they talking with who can advocate for future generations? Are they seeking the opinions of people who have ideas they disagree with, or who make them feel uncomfortable? If not, why not?

Most people do have a genuine concern about the needs of future generations, but coaches can explore how their clients are aligning this value with what they are doing or not doing regarding climate change. How can they use their values to develop a greater sense of purpose and direction, which they can move towards with intention?

Coaching can be a powerful tool to help clients overcome feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, grief and sense of being powerless, that often emerge with a realisation of the seismic level of destruction that climate change will bring for current and future generations.

We can work with clients to explore what it means to consider both current and future generational needs in a deliberate and mutually beneficial way. We can shift the time horizon to extend this thinking to consider action that is truly ‘cathedral thinking’. Cathedral thinking challenges people to take action that may take several generations to produce benefit.

This approach addresses the needs beyond the current generation so that future generations can maintain their own and their descendants’ wellbeing. Our current generation may not benefit from such ‘trans-generational’ activity, but action such as increasing global tree cover to help manage carbon emissions could help provide a stable climate and halt bio-diversity loss beyond 2100.

Tanya Nash is a Welsh-based professional sustainability coach and facilitator, with nearly 30 years of experience working with leaders in public and community service.

Image: Matt Palmer on Unsplash