Climate change: Are businesses ready for the ‘Attenborough effect’ part two?

The aftermath of BBC's Blue Planet 2 series sparked an unprecedented public outcry against single-use plastics, where businesses were firmly in the crosshairs. With Sir David Attenborough and BBC partnering on the Climate Change - The Facts documentary, do businesses need to prepare for more public scrutiny?

Climate change: Are businesses ready for the ‘Attenborough effect’ part two?

At the ripe old age of 92, Sir David Attenborough is, rather fittingly, evolving. The beloved broadcaster has been documenting on climate impacts for a little over two decades now, and on animals and nature for much longer. But the environment – or at least the broadcasters he is working with – has changed over recent years, meaning Attenborough no longer has to tiptoe around the issue of climate change; he can pull as many punches as he wants.

BBC and Attenborough aired a one-off special documentary, Climate Change – That Facts last Friday (April 18). The hour-long documentary spells out that humanity is “facing [it’s] greatest threat in thousands of years” in the form of climate change.

If you were to watch this with a metaphorical climate bingo card to hand, you’d be a winner around 15 minutes in, as Attenborough rattles off well-versed notions (at least for sustainability professionals) of how heatwaves, forest fires, extreme weather events and rising sea levels are set to create “irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies”.

This isn’t a criticism of the documentary, but rather a depressing reflection of society. We’re less than 11 years from the Sustainable Development Goals deadline and 31 years from the timeframe for net-zero emissions, yet the UK public is only just being given the “facts” on climate change in a far-reaching format a quarter into 2019.

The documentary is blockbuster in its visuals, but this is a conversation the wider public needed years ago. It’s a great set up, similar to Game of Thrones season one, or the Avengers Assemble. But in a month where Marvel approaches its “endgame” and Westeros gears up for its final battle, the documentary poses more questions than it resolves.

Public questions

The documentary does serve a necessary purpose of equipping viewers with the required information to understand climate change, and even nudges the public towards solutions including climate impact diets and carbon capturing units.

It was arguably designed to replicate the impact that Blue Planet 2 had on viewers. A so-called “Attenborough effect” following the distressing imagery of birds and whales alike swallowing plastic has led to a 53% decline in single-use plastic use amongst consumers in 12 months.

If Climate Change – The Facts can replicate a portion of the success of Blue Planet 2, businesses should prepare for a barrage of consumer concerns regarding their roles in combatting climate change.

It’s not to say that business will be the only focus of concerned consumers. The documentary takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of all the devastating impacts of climate change. From orangutans fighting off bulldozers in Indonesia to forest fires in California, via fields of dead bats in Australia, the footage stretches itself a little too much on the impacts of climate change, leaving little time to cover viable solutions beyond the normal veil of, and I’m paraphrasing here, “politicians are bad, especially Rex Tillerson”.

What this means for business and politicians alike is that questions and demands will come fast, but void of any real clarity. This poses a danger that the responses offered by businesses are equally vague and don’t provide any meaningful information.

Whether it’s through public forums, social media, 16-year old climate activists or city-wide civil disobedience protests, businesses are now being asked: “what are you doing about climate change?”.

How a business responds is crucial. In an era of bloated markets, high levels of customer choice and low levels of consumer trust, addressing climate change in a meaningful manner could well be the bridge to retaining consumer and staff loyalty.

The dial on this conversation has shifted, and business can no longer just point to random carbon reduction targets and energy efficiency measures. Combatting climate change is a precise science and businesses signed up to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) have an opportunity to explain how they’re strategy is contributing to a future world where we actually manage climate change.

However, it is no longer enough for a business to just do its part. The role of business in society is to bring others on this low-carbon trajectory, whether that’s suppliers, customers or ideally both.

In the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests, the chief executives of Unilever, Solarcentury the Body Shop and Toast Ale, to name a few, have publicly backed the protestors by “declaring a climate emergency” through the XR Business coalition. This type of advocacy is what can make a business charge into the vanguard of climate leadership; it’s easy to get your own house in order, but true climate leadership is the ability and willingness to be vocal in making others step up to this daunting challenge.

If the public latches onto the dangers of climate change in the same way it did plastics, businesses will need to a climate checklist ready to appease concerns. Investments into renewables, forest stewardship, low-carbon innovation and climate science are necessities, but so is radical transparency. Realise that one business does not have all the answers and tell consumers how you want, plan to, or will, reach out to other organisations to mobilise action.

It’s unlikely that a business can block out the noise on this. Greta Thunberg met with UK MPs this week, the Extinction Rebellion protests march on and the Committee on Climate Change is set to publish advice on how the UK can set a net-zero carbon target next week. If anything, now is the time to reflect and ask, “is my business truly doing enough?”.

As for Attenborough, his sway and influence over the public are unlikely to slow. The Our Planet Netflix series was more ‘a million ways to die in the wild’ compared to his usually tranquil coverage of nature documentaries. But as both the BBC and Netflix have shown, fact-based documentaries about our planet are becoming a lot more alarming and brutally honest as our planet becomes a lot more dystopian. If Attenborough is no longer tiptoeing around these issues, then neither should business.

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