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Article Article May 16th, 2024
Cities • Delivery • Energy • Innovation

Embracing the paradox: the urgency of climate action and the power of learning from failure

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Why is experimental governance important, and how can iterative learning help to drive action and long-term impact? Learn more in this @CPI_foundation article exploring effective leadership in climate action.

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.@MathFoged & @LidyaStamper address the tension between the urgent need for action & the notion that to tackle #climatechange, we need to slow down and embrace the process of learning from failures.

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"By fostering an environment where experimentation and the honest evaluation of failures are seen as essential components of success, leaders can forge a more effective and enduring response to the climate crisis."

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This blog series, focused on building a new climate leadership paradigm, is part of CPI's Climate Change Initiative. Partnering with local governments across the world, we test new innovative approaches that can accelerate climate action in cities. Our work currently focuses on four opportunity areas that are ripe for disruption: organisational transformation, building legitimacy, systemic climate finance, and information and learning systems.

The effects of global warming are already underway. The last decade was warmer than any period for ~125,000 years and our oceans are warming faster than ever since the end of the last ice age (IPCC AR6). About half the global population currently contends with severe water scarcity for at least one month per year, while higher temperatures are enabling the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Agricultural productivity growth has shrunk by a third in Africa since 1961, and since 2008, extreme floods and storms have forced over 20 million people from their homes yearly. Climate action is urgently needed.

This is the fourth blog in our series exploring the skills and mindsets needed for effective leadership in climate action. In previous blogs, we introduced the power of storytelling in climate leadership, how effective leaders practice introspection, and why leaders benefit from understanding themselves as part of bigger systems.

In this piece, we’ll explore the importance of experimental governance and iterative learning to drive action and long-term impact. We’ll address the intuitive tension between the urgent need for action and the notion that to tackle climate change, we need to slow down and embrace the process of learning from failures.

The urgency of climate action

The science is clear: climate change is already affecting the lives of people and our planet. The effects are intensifying, and rising global temperatures heighten the probability of reaching dangerous tipping points in the climate system.

Exceeding planetary tipping points will trigger self-amplifying feedback loops, further increasing global warming and leading to irreversible environmental damage (IPCC AR6). Loss of biodiversity, food security and uninhabitable places leading to forced migration are just some examples of the effects that will become the realities for many of us.

A plethora of research underscores the urgency of action, indicating that we have not yet enabled the necessary transformations in our systems towards a carbon-free future. Instead, we’ve crossed 6 out of 9 planetary boundaries, increasing the pressure on our planet and amplifying the risks to the ecosystems and communities we are part of (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2023).

Given these stark realities, the call for immediate and robust climate action has never been more critical. Leaders and policymakers must implement swift measures to reduce carbon emissions, transition to renewable energy sources, and protect vulnerable ecosystems and communities.

The importance of learning and embracing failure

Despite the need for quick collective action, effective leadership in response to climate change demands a willingness to embrace experimentation and learn from failures. To harvest the potential of new ideas and structures in a carbon-free society, we must accept the time it takes to test and experiment with new systems and initiatives.

We won’t know what works until we have tried it. This approach isn’t about moving slowly; it's about moving wisely. Embracing experimentation and learning from failure doesn’t mean slowing down. Instead, it encourages action and testing multiple avenues. Some might not work, but you’ll only find out by trying, learning and taking action. Integrating learning and failure into the climate action framework ultimately helps develop more resilient and adaptable strategies, even under pressure.

The development of offshore wind farming is an example of a complex journey that has involved numerous failures and iterative improvements. Firstly, the purely technical challenges of constructing and installing turbines in deep waters led to innovative solutions like corrosion-resistant coatings, floating platforms and new crane barges.

In addition, working out the complexities of regulatory frameworks, stakeholder consultations, and environmental assessments was another challenge that took time and iterative approaches to tackle (Wieczorek et al. 2013). Today, offshore wind turbines are more efficient than onshore turbines, requiring fewer turbines to produce the same amount of energy and playing a central role in our transition to a carbon-free electricity system (National Grid 2022).

The truth is that pioneering in uncharted territories often involves missteps and setbacks.  One climate leader we spoke to, who works as a chief sustainability officer in a mid-size American city, shared how she and her team actively embrace the iterative learning process when adopting new initiatives in the city:

“Sometimes we need to take several steps back to move forward in a new way.”

It takes time to figure out what works in their city's context, and the only way to reach their climate goals is to try different ideas. They are clear on the importance of embracing failure as a learning opportunity. As another climate leader expressed:

“..and when you fail, you just make sure the next time you learn from your mistakes. Try it again. You just fail better.”

What conditions enable us to embrace failures?

A positive approach to failure hinges on the broader organisational culture around learning. If we perceive failure as a threat or something shameful, organisations risk repeating the same failures without embracing the learning opportunity that failing ultimately is. Failure is inevitable in any complex system and happens all the time. Hence, organisations have a choice as to whether they acknowledge the context they work in and embrace failure as learning, or instead risk large-scale failures or even disasters in the long term.

However, nurturing organisational conditions must be in place to enable a risk-taking culture. Teams and individuals must feel psychologically safe and trusted to test out something unknown that might not work initially.

A psychologically safe culture is mainly based on leaders' ability to encourage this by leaning into their own fallibility while inviting participation and creating structures and processes that make sharing and collective learning part of everyday routines. Stigma and sanctions must then not be related to learning and failure. From our programme Failing Forward, we have seen the advantages of intentionally promoting risk-taking and experimentation as strategic points for improvements.

The slow change in human behaviours

One of the most significant challenges in climate action is the inertia inherent in human behaviour and societal structures. Changing how individuals and communities live, work, and consume is a gradual process requiring time and persistent effort.

Behavioural science is a widely popular discipline that spends a lot of resources documenting how hard it is to instil new cultural norms and change societal behaviours. For example, we know how hard it is for people to adapt to wearing a bike helmet when cycling. Despite the clear benefits of wearing a bike helmet (potentially life-saving), many people do not see it as a given but have social and cultural arguments for riding helmet-free.

Considering how niche an issue bike helmets are and how many campaigns, resources and money have been put towards the issue, imagine the resistance car commuters might have towards car-free cities. Transportation habits, especially car ownership, are associated with freedom, convenience, and social status, and they are so deeply ingrained that even if presented with viable alternatives, most people intuitively resist change. Behaviour change takes time, which is another reason we need to be thoughtful and slow down, even when that could seem at odds with the urgency of the climate crisis.

The way forward

True climate leadership embraces the tension between the need for urgent action and the benefits of deliberate learning. By fostering an environment where experimentation and the honest evaluation of failures are seen as essential components of success, leaders can forge a more effective and enduring response to the climate crisis.

In the end, the synergy of action and reflection enhances our immediate responses and ensures that our strategies evolve and adapt, keeping pace with the changing planet and our understanding of how best to protect it. This balanced approach is not just a good strategy for climate leadership —it's necessary for our planet to survive and thrive.

Check out our top tips for embracing failure as learning and creating a psychologically safe environment.

Embrace failure as learning by Mathilde Foged Jensen

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