If there is one thing the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear, it is the absolute fragility of the global system. Hospitals and their supply chains are overwhelmed. Travel halts. Events are canceled. Markets crash. Billions are left unemployed or uncertain. Government budgets are strained. All at such speed and scale as to leave everyone scrambling to figure out how one effect cascades to the next, intersects with others, and compounds the previous ones.
And that is but one kind of fragility, the systemic one, normally falling on senior corporate teams to decipher, as they move to protect brands, sales, production streams, investment portfolios, and the other things you scramble to salvage during any sudden recession.
The pandemic is also uncovering another kind of fragility, that of your people —leaders, employees, customers, communities, suppliers and other stakeholders affected by the outbreak at a more personal level, but in ways that disrupt or interrupt your operations.
Could you have prepared for both fragilities ahead of time? Now that you’re going through this pandemic, can you take adaptation measures to prepare for future ones?
For a column focused on corporate climate adaptation, this is THE question, and the answer is a resounding yes. We can now be fairly certain COVID-19 was a direct result of extreme climate, as the uninterrupted warming of the planet leads to the spread of viral pathogens exactly like this one.
So you can be sure this will recur, and far more often than up to now, because the years and decades ahead will be marked by temperatures that will rise exponentially, not linearly, yielding a future starkly different from the present and past, including more frequent pandemics.
For ways to integrate socioeconomic fragility into your climate-risk management, allow me to defer to the McKinsey Global Institute and the phenomenal Climate Risk Report they published just two months ago. You’ll notice they didn’t focus on viral outbreaks, but more than any other top-tier source I’ve come across, they do guide you on incorporating socioeconomic consequences into your climate-risk assessment and action plan, combined with the physical and transition risks with which you are more familiar, the ones covered masterfully by TCFD.
A solid adaptation plan, that is, guards against systemic fragility no matter the cause. And so it is with human fragility, which we see painfully with every extreme climate event — storms, floods, droughts, fires, heat waves…viral pandemics, particularly, as with COVID-19, when it devastates the less fortunate and more vulnerable who lack the resources to adapt ahead of time and respond when disaster strikes.
While we painfully see this effect with every event, COVID-19 is taking that awareness to a whole new level, because it is far more global, and because it is disrupting nearly every aspect of our lives, from our favorite sports to dating, work, vacations, childcare, even everything you touch and everyone you talk to on a daily basis.
Resilience from fragility
There is yet another, deeper level of human fragility exposed by these life alterations. We know from studies and polling that solid majorities of people around the world already suffer from growing levels of climate anxiety and stress. That includes your company’s leaders, employees and stakeholders no matter where they live.
People are getting the message, mainly from the constant stream of frightening news reports, that the climate has become increasingly more severe and threatens their lifestyle and livelihood. But they don’t know where it is all going. No one knows with comforting certainty. Hence the anxiety.
If your company’s risk managers are running models to get a sense of it and protect your operations, you’re ahead of the pack. But the vast majority of companies are not there yet, and even at those that are, there remains the matter of what to do with the climate restlessness their people are feeling and that events like COVID-19 only serve to heighten.
As an HR manager, you are unable, nor is it necessarily your role, to “save” everyone from this internal fragility, from this deeply personal conundrum. But neither can you totally divorce yourself from it, because it affects their work and productivity, and more so as the climate continues to worsen.
What should you do? Get out in front of it. Don’t let it grow and fester. Go on offense. You can attack this cancer in unique and exciting ways, and importantly make it an enterprise-wide endeavor. That’s what this Five Task approach is all about. Don’t just do it for pandemics. Do it for all climate impacts.
In fact, you can take advantage of today’s pandemic. It gives you a glorious opportunity to launch an internal initiative to change the narrative in your company and redirect how your people receive all this news and turn it instead into a positive life force, not the profound emotional downer it is today.
The first thing to realize is that not everyone in your company is strong. Most, in fact, are emotionally vulnerable, their thoughts and behavior often driven by irrational biases and heuristics, as opposed to robust agency, clear headedness, and group leadership. Horrifying climate news is processed at that level.
But that fragility is superficial. It is merely on the surface, a false perception, if you will. Lurking beneath is a resilient inner strength with which most people are simply not top-of-mind aware. The great irony is that it bursts through the surface precisely in times of disaster. The events that cause anxiety are the ones, when they occur, that bring out the best in us.
History is replete with examples, including during times of deadly plagues like the one we face today. Everyone who witnesses the reaction of common folks following an extreme climate event, like I did after Hurricane Maria in 2017, has seen it alive and well.
It is just not true that when faced with disaster, or the threat of future disasters, people are paralyzed by fear and sink into despair, and that therefore you should sugarcoat the future for fear of demoralizing or triggering defeatism. That is simply not borne out by facts and experience.
Yet, in most climate-change conversations that reach this point, the fragility assumption is practically default, generally because we assume most people are so motivated by the promise of a positive future outcome and pursuit, that anything that disrupts or puts it at risk produces irreparable depression and dysfunctionalism.
The opposite is not just observable in every climate and viral disaster. It is also evident in the five-stage Kubler-Ross Cycle of Grief so universal to the human experience. When we encounter terminal illness, a family death or any terrible truth, the first couple of stages are, indeed, at the level of our fragility.
But here’s the good news: we don’t stay there! We move past it. Yes, there is a stage, a healthy one at that, of despair and depression. But it’s not static. We recover, and as we move along the cycle, we gain strength, until we emerge with acceptance and action.
Or as Dougald Hine asserts in this magical minute. “You have to sit with the dark and let your eyes adjust, and then see what you notice, what kinds of possibilities and hope live, grow, in the darkness, as opposed to the kind of hope that’s more like wishful thinking.” Hine is a co-founder of Dark Mountain, a global collective where writers and artists explore the most daunting dimensions of the climate crisis in beautiful, inspiring ways.
When you integrate this understanding in your Five Tasks initiative, coach your people to Live In the Truth (LIT). Launch an internal initiative that gives people light. You can call it something like We’re All LIT Up. Use whatever language works in your culture. Because the first step in any Kubler process is to embrace reality and emerge whole, not live in delusion and false hopes.
Then, as they move through the cycle in this shared corporate journey, you’ll want to make them fully aware of an even deeper source of inner strength they have always had. Indeed, that everyone everywhere, for all of human history, has always had.
People are driven as much or more by an internal ethical code of moral legacy, virtue, integrity, service, tradition and honor, than by the realization of a material dream or an outcome win that climate change will likely alter or derail. Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam points to plentiful scholarship and behavior science supporting this, as he makes the point eloquently in this six-minute segment.
At the level of pop culture, this refreshing vision is found in Hopepunk, the content trend driving a new generation of film, song and game writers who treat the coming climate reckoning not with the false hope of solving it and returning to normal, since that is increasingly less likely to happen, but rather as a journey where you thrive on the struggle itself, where we make peace and find adventure in uncertainty.
A new optimism and hope is born of helping others and creating spaces of life and work — in the case of your employees, places of productivity, agency, autonomy, mastery and purpose, where they align with your company’s brand and social mission and therefore partake more fully in your adaptation initiative.
The clarity of fragility, that is, cuts both ways; we’re clear about the fragility in the system, and our people become clear about the strength and resilience that lie beneath our human fragility. We must learn to trust people as they go through the cycle, that they will discover that strength and live in the truth.
From a creative-communications perspective, take your people on a journey to the future, as challenging as it is — in fact, it is because it’s so challenging that they need your help envisioning and understanding it.
Write a new Hopepunk story for your company. Paint a Future Picture tailored to you, not with a happy-outcome ending, but one that lifts spirits and engages everyone in a different kind of ride. One concept I’m developing is Cypriana, a “place” today and in the near future where we allow the code of service and honor, of collaboration and truth, to lead the way.
It is named after Brother Cyprian of Carthage during the horrifying plague of 250–262 that wiped out half to two thirds of the population of Carthage and other Mediterranean cities. Cyprian kept a diary where he documented the inspiring human marvel of communities coming to each other’s aid and nurturing an environment of strength and resilience.
This is not a geographical or location place. It’s a living place. Your company can be Cypriana. A city can resolve to become Cypriana. So can a home or group of friends. Transition Network communities are already living it.
Come up with your own name and script, and make this, too, a central part, the human side, of your adaptation plan, so that as your company tackles the inherent systemic fragility of the global economy, your people can discover the strength inherent in their nature as communal beings and make the company far stronger and more resilient as a result.
Alex Díaz, a leading thinker and analyst in the fast-emerging field of corporate climate adaptation, has a long career spanning business journalism, strategic communications, sustainability management, and stakeholder initiatives. He lives in Puerto Rico, at the entrance of the Caribbean hurricane alley, and runs adaptation studio COMMON Future, an affiliate of global social-enterprise collaborative COMMON.