Ben Cope Insights

Climate adaptation: the COP27 takeaway for strategic communications

Communicators have a responsibility to emphasise the importance of climate adaptation – both as an operational necessity and as a new reputational bar by which businesses will be judged

In the critically acclaimed episode ‘Free Churro’ in the Netflix black-comedy animation, Bojack Horseman, Bojack, a washed-up actor, delivers this line about the long-since discontinued sitcom which brought him fame:

“You can’t have happy endings in sitcom… There’s always more show. And you can call [the sitcom] … dumb, or bad, or unrealistic, but there is nothing more realistic than that. You never get a happy ending, ‘cause there’s always more show.”

If there is one thing strategic communicators should take away from COP27, it’s that when it comes to climate change, there are no happy endings. Despite business’ net zero pledges, climate change is coming. Climate adaption is therefore a strategic imperative that all businesses should be preparing for. Strategic communicators need to lead the charge in preparing climate risk assessments, while assessing reputational risks and opportunities.

This doom may come as a surprise following the celebrations and triumphalism that followed COP26 last year. Every business you could name appeared to announce a net zero strategy, Mark Carney declared $130tn of private capital was waiting to be deployed towards net zero and even Jeff Bezos gave a stirring address. Net zero quickly became a hygiene factor that everyone could rise to, as business took its place at the top of the climate table, doing its bit to protect people and planet. All that remained was for these net zero strategies to be implemented. The show – it seemed – was over.

And yet, COP27 kicked off with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declaring the world is on a “highway to climate hell”, while The Economist grimly declared “global warming cannot be limited to 1.5°C”. Despite business’ best net zero efforts, climate change is happening whether it likes it or not. Strategic communicators have a responsibility to emphasise the importance of climate adaptation – both as an operational necessity and as a new reputational bar by which businesses will be judged – as well as playing a key role in preparing and implementing a strategy.

This begs the question: how does a business adapt to climate change? Corporate affairs departments should push for climate risk assessments, a process to understand the operational threats climate change poses to a business at different degrees of global warming, an activity they should feed in to. Risks will come in many forms. Some will be physical, for instance, how extreme weather will affect factories and roads used in supply chains. While others will be caused by price volatility, e.g., what goods will become more expensive as the planet warms? It may sound perverse, but these assessments should not solely focus on how a business can respond to risk, but also how it can realise opportunity. For example, how can companies help their customers as the planet warms, while helping their bottom line as well?

Climate adaption will need to be communicated. For those with ambitious net zero targets and strong ESG credentials, this will be an opportunity to continue demonstrating leadership. One can imagine a new cottage industry springing up to measure whether companies are ready for 2°C, 2.5°C and 3°C.

This will not be a risk-free communications strategy. Corporate climate leaders will need to balance the need to adapt to a warming world with the risk of alienating the public from its commitment to climate action. Business, governments and multinationals will need to work in lockstep to ensure the public remain motivated. Similarly, if companies whose net zero actions are deemed insufficient start talking about climate adaptation, they will rightly come under fire for try to win favour for preparing for a crisis they haven’t tried to avert.

In the last few years, strategic communicators have had much success pulling businesses towards the green. They will now also have to make sure businesses are ready for life as the planet turns red. Climate adaptation will be the next big climate challenge for communications departments. The show is just beginning.