We use both political and scientific indicators to define objectives and track progress in addressing climate change. The most important political indicators are enshrined in the Paris Agreement, including the ‘well below 2 degrees’ target and the emissions reduction pledges of each signatory country. And the essential scientific variables for understanding the Earth’s climate are defined by the World Meteorological Organization, including air temperature, seawater salinity, and glacier melt rates. The overwhelming majority of these metrics are lagging indicators. They sit in the domain of outcomes and measure quantities so far down the causal chain that they function as nothing more than abstract ambitions.
The second issue is that many climate indicators used by journalists and climate advocates, even those upstream in the causal chain, are poorly designed. An indicator becomes actionable if it meets three conditions. First, the indicator must sit on the right level of aggregation. A highly aggregated indicator, such as worldwide emissions from deforestation, carries the promise of great leverage. But only a relatively small number of people, such as heads of states and corporate CEOs, can influence it. A highly disaggregated indicator, such as personal meat consumption, typically exerts less leverage but can engage more people. The challenge is to master a balancing act between the potential for influence and the possibility of engagement. Second, the indicator must come with clearly assignable responsibility. It must be possible to identify the individuals whose actions directly impact the indicator, and these people need to have both perceived and actual agency. And third, the indicator must have a well-defined route to impact. To the individuals with agency, it needs to be evident how their decisions are going to affect the indicator.
Why is all this important? Because indicators matter.
Donella Meadows, a scholarly pioneer in systems thinking, identified indicators as powerful leverage points for changing systems. Indicators sit at the center of decision-making processes and their presence, absence, or prominence can greatly affect the behavior of a system. Introducing actionability into our indicator landscape will change the nature of the debate from obscure to tangible, from vague to specific. By disaggregating a collective action problem into a set of contributing drivers, we can assign distinct tasks to identifiable individuals in politics and business. This provides NGOs, journalists, and civic leaders with a tool to hold these agents of change accountable for their actions, stripping them of the opportunity to use collective inaction as an excuse for their own omissions and complacency.
Redirecting our attention to indicators further upstream in the causal chain will also change how we think about policy. At the moment, a growing sense of urgency and apprehension makes us manically repeat the same bold but unactionable policy goals. As I argue in a separate article, such over-ambition can cause paralysis. How do we fully decarbonize the world’s vehicle fleet? Nobody knows for sure. How do we engage and motivate young people not to apply for a driver’s license? That sounds much less daunting. Actionability can resolve paralysis by assigning responsibility, strengthening agency, and showing a clear route to impact. It nudges us to think about the problem differently and entertain interventions we haven’t considered before. This may lead to novel policy approaches and reduce ‘apocalypse fatigue’ and global warming cynicism.
So to leverage the reach and influence of journalists and climate advocates more effectively in service of climate action, we need to develop a new set of indicators. These new indicators need to meet all the standard criteria of effective indicator design such as measurability, clarity, and relevance. In addition, they must be leading, not lagging, sitting firmly in an upstream segment of the causal chain, in the sphere of intervention. And they must be actionable, defined at the right level of aggregation and with clearly assignable responsibility and specific routes to impact.
Let’s consider some ideas for such actionable leading climate indicators
In the transportation sector, we should stop obsessing over the share of electric vehicles on total vehicle sale and instead focus on the number of driving licenses issued by transportation departments or the perceived safety of commuters. In the energy sector, we should de-emphasize the share of renewables on total capacity new-build and focus on the fraction of consumers subscribed to their utility’s all-renewable product. In finance, we should start measuring the number of financial sector regulators mandating carbon risk disclosures and the percentage of banks with corporate policies against lending capital to fossil fuel companies. And in education, we should focus on teacher training rates and on the fraction of business schools covering sustainability in their MBA core curricula.
Donella Meadows suggested that any indicator development process should start from the notion that indicators are part of a broader information system characterized by hierarchy, access, and sources. The process should bring together experts, practitioners, and end users in a co-creative design exercise. And it should consider the principles and insights of systems thinking to identify leverage points, linkages, feedback loops, and the risk and mechanisms of unintended consequences.
There is a famous management adage positing that ‘what gets measured gets managed’. If we want to manage for change, we must start measuring for actionability.