On backing the right horse, and whether Dr. Sultan Al Jaber will heed the call to courage
I once found out, three weeks into a new job, via the medium of a newspaper exposé, that the firm I’d joined as a leader in the sustainability practice had an extremely large fossil fuel portfolio of which I had been hitherto unaware. This was not a happy revelation, representing a clear conflict of interest and threat to both my and the firm’s credibility. I wasn’t sure whether to leave immediately, or stay and push for progress. So I did what I’ve often done over the years when in need of guidance on a climate-related dilemma; I called Hunter Lovins.
“Well, you have to decide if you’re riding a true horse or a counterfeit horse,” Lovins advised, “because a counterfeit horse can’t be ridden, no matter how good the rider.” (Hunter is not only my friend, mentor and a veteran climate changemaker; she is also a rancher and bona fide cowgirl, as her signature hat testifies.) In other words, was the agency in question a good faith actor, or no? Long story short, after a year of trying to ride, I judged this particular horse to be counterfeit, and moved on.
Cowgirl wisdom and COP28
I’ve thought about Hunter’s cowgirl wisdom often in the years since, and I am minded of it now as I follow updates on COP28 from the cheap seats back here in New York. The counterfeit-ness or otherwise of COP28 President and ADNOC CEO Dr. Sultan Al Jaber seems to have been the animating question of the COP.
For context, from the very start, the blatantly oxymoronic nature of the decision to appoint an oil magnate to lead a climate conference was lost on no one. But undoing that decision wasn’t an option, so the climate community had to make the best of it. The event itself then got off to an unpromising start with the conference-eve release of a BBC exposé revealing the UAE planned to use the COP as a forum for negotiating oil deals. So far, so expected.
Seemingly a counterfeit horse could no more be ridden than a fossil fuel leopard could change its spots.
Then came a surprise first-day announcement of progress on the long-overdue Loss and Damage Fund (pledging financial support for climate adaptation in the developing nations that will be hardest hit by climate change, having done the least to cause it), reportedly the first time a decision of this sort had been reached on day one of any COP. Skepticism toward Al Jaber softened — even though the fund pledges were tiny compared to the health and economic impact of climate change and to, say, soccer star salaries.
But any goodwill engendered was to quickly evaporate. Three days later footage emerged of Al Jaber making the (erroneous/outlandish) claim to revered Chair of The Elders and former Irish Prime Minister Mary Robinson that “there is no science out there — or no scenario out there — that says the phase-out of fossil fuels is going to achieve 1.5C.” This phase-out remark was particularly incendiary since the primary goal of the climate community at this COP, and the criteria by which its success or failure, and by extension that of its president, Al Jaber, will be judged, is whether or not that one phrase, indeed one word — out (rather than its more waffly sister “phase down”) — is included in the meeting’s final text. The interview appeared to confirm the skeptics’ worst fears. Seemingly a counterfeit horse could no more be ridden than a fossil fuel leopard could change its spots.
A call to courage
This week, however, has seen a new strategy emerge. On Friday, an open letter, architected by the B Team and others, and signed by “over 2,000 signatories and counting from across business, finance, philanthropy, politics, academia and civil society,” was released, calling on “the COP28 President and all parties” to recommit to a 1.5 degrees warming target via “an orderly phase-out of fossil fuels, the tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and the doubling of energy efficiency,” among additional commitments. My LinkedIn feed was flooded with leaders from all sectors of society pledging their support for this letter. There was evidence it was heeded; Al Jaber referenced it in his remarks to delegates. What struck me though was the word choice of those backing it. “I’m proud to join leaders from all sectors of society and corners of the world — together we stand in courage and resolve with the COP28 President & all Parties in bringing us together behind a 1.5°C plan. Because #LaterIsTooLate #COP28” their carefully coordinated posts said [emphasis mine].
The decision to frame this around standing in courage with Al Jaber was what struck me. When writing Green Giants, I studied business leaders who’d been successful in transforming their businesses through sustainability. In each of the nine companies I studied, one individual, the Iconoclastic Leader, had been the patient zero or ultimate architect of the strategy. In seven of the nine companies this individual had been the CEO or Chairman at the time. And these individuals had shared traits, the “4 Cs” of Iconoclastic Leadership: Conviction, Courage, Commitment and Contrarianism. Conviction, because each had experienced a crucible moment that forced a revelation — sustainability was the only path forward; Courage, because it takes immense amounts of courage to stand up to shareholders, colleagues and capitalism; Commitment, because this path is not easy; and Contrarianism, because to embrace sustainability as a business strategy means being willing to stand outside of the safety of conformity and norms. The point is that, in the end, it came down to the character, integrity and decision-making of one individual — one human being, as susceptible to social norms, the lure of money, the pull of ego, as any of us.
If he fails to do what they ask, to embrace courage, then by implication he must be a coward. And no one in his position would ever wish to be seen as that.
While COP is not entirely in the hands of one man (on the contrary, it’s the rare moment in which we ask every country in the world to reach consensus), the COP President sets the tone and is a highly influential gatekeeper of the text. In this letter, the signatories’ framing explicitly calls that man, Dr. Al Jaber, to courage, to join the ranks of the Iconoclastic Leaders.
He will need huge buckets of it. And he will need to combine courage with contrarianism — because as the CEO of an oil company and leader in a petro-state, embracing this text would require him to stand up to — reject, even — almost everything and everyone he knows. But the framing is clever because it backs Al Jaber into a corner. Great frames inhabit the positive space, leaving their opposite a place no one wants to be. If he fails to do what they ask, to embrace courage, then by implication he must be a coward. And no one in his position would ever wish to be seen as that.
A counterfeit conclusion?
When seeking to recruit more C-suiters to the ranks of climate and sustainability leaders, I’ve often tried this call to courage. Leaders, for better or worse, all have egos, and at that level tend to be focused on being consequential, and on legacy. “Will you be the next Iconoclastic Leader?” I ask them. “Do you recognize the 4 Cs in yourself?” My parting gambit is usually to shake their hand, look them square in the eye, thank them for their leadership and then say: “We’re counting on you. Don’t let us down.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I sure hope Al Jaber heeds this call to courage and emerges the Iconoclastic Leader this COP and this moment demands. Today, a draft agreement called for “deep” cuts to fossil fuels, but not a “phase-out.” Observers in Dubai, however, said that text is under fire.
“It’s not over yet. This is just the first text,” Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, posted. “The majority of countries called for much stronger language than this. The EU is saying it will walk if the deal is not changed.”
We’ll soon know for sure whether Al Jabar is a true horse — with courage — or a counterfeit.
Featured photo: UN / Loey Felipe