Climate talks got underway in Copenhagen on Monday with representatives from 192 nations. A great many people around the world see climate change as the greatest global threat we face, likely to adversely affect billions of people in the decades ahead if nothing is done. The feeling is not universal though; some people and businesses view efforts to fight climate change as the threat. For businesses changing their perspective to match a changing world, efforts to fight climate change and build a greener economy hold the opportunity of a lifetime.
Recent commitments by the US, China, and India are creating new momentum for real progress at the meetings, even if an actual treaty is unlikely to emerge. President Obama will announce a commitment to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, consistent with legislation pending in Congress. And the administration may not wait for Congress to act; the EPA announced Monday that greenhouse gases pose a threat to health of Americans and can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Many, including the Obama administration, see a cap and trade system as a better way to drive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but are willing to regulate them through the EPA if a legislative solution cannot be produced.
In addition to the US commitment, China has announced that by 2020 they will reduce greenhouse gases 40-45% per unit of GDP. In a similar move India has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP production by 20-25% by 2020 compared to 2005.
For those pushing for big change, these commitments seem insufficient. For China and India these are not actual cuts, but reductions in the rate of growth. For the US, the commitment is less than Europe’s and not enough compared to what some scientists say need to be achieved. The US is already halfway toward a 17% reduction from 2005 levels due to the recession alone.
These commitments by some of the largest producers of greenhouse gases may not be enough, but they are important progress and are more than sufficient to stir up opponents. Many in China and India are worried that overly aggressive action to tackle climate change could harm economic growth, and some US businesses have similar concerns.
For some businesses, the opposition is based on cost. The US Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that so far they’re opposed to either proposed EPA action or cap and trade because they feel that these moves would be expensive for business and would curb economic growth. The estimates of what cap and trade would cost vary widely. The estimates of what a cap and trade system would cost households have ranged from thousands of dollars per household to the EPA estimate of $80-$100 a year. The true value is probably closer to the lower end of the range.
Certainly there are many businesses with a vested interest in the status quo. If your business is coal, it is not surprising if you’re not the first in line to support climate change legislation, regulation, or treaties. Past funding of climate skeptics by big oil seems pretty clearly linked to the profit motive.
Often though it seems that opposition to fighting climate change goes deeper than money, stemming from a deep resistance to change.
Climate change is slow in the human scale of time, and it is hard for us to track slow changes like this. I rarely notice how much my kids are growing from day to day, unless I compare a picture we took a year or two ago. But the changes are happening whether we like it or not. Massive stands of pine trees are dying on millions of acres across the US West because the warming climate fails to kill pine beetles off in the winter. The science shows that the past ten years are the warmest on record, Arctic ice continues to melt, and glaciers continue their retreat around the globe. Its getting to the point that you don’t need a computer model to see what is happening – you just need to look around the world at the changes that are already underway.
The recent flap over leaked emails from climate scientists, termed "ClimateGate" by some, does not change these conclusions. The emails may reveal that scientists are prone to the same petty issues that everyone else is, but they do not overturn the science.
Fear also plays a role in the reluctance to take on climate change. In the Great Recession a great many businesses in crisis mode have focused strictly on the immediate needs of keeping their doors open. As the danger fades they can move from crisis mode to recovery mode, rethinking where they’re headed to take advantage of the continued shift in the business world toward sustainability.
Many of the biggest businesses are already doing a surprising amount to move sustainability forward, as Jared Diamond described in his recent Op Ed "Will Big Business Save the Earth". Wal-Mart continues to push for efficiency within its organization, and a measurable improvement in sustainability throughout its supply chain with their Sustainability Index. Doing more sustainable business also means more efficient, less-polluting, less-consuming, and less greenhouse gas-emitting. Not to mention more profitable.
A global agreement to fight climate change will create huge opportunities in renewable energy, and many other industries. Offset projects, properly managed, and energy efficiency investments will provide worldwide growth for green businesses, with billions likely to be committed by developed nations to help the developing world to adjust to this new world that is emerging. What is changing is not just an isolated industry. While we have often talked about the green economy, the entire economy is shifting toward sustainability with efforts like these.
The world is changing, and the bigger the change, the greater the fear and the greater the urge to hold back. This changing business environment reminds me of the book "Who Moved My Cheese?" The book describes the reactions of mice, or people, to a changing environment, with some of the players adjusting more effectively to a changed environment and finding new opportunities, while others seem unable to adapt.
There are those who will fight, deny, and avoid the changes, trying to stick to old ways. And there are others who are adapting to the changing world and succeeding by being a part of the shift to more efficient, cleaner, and more sustainable ways of doing business.
The question to ask is not whether you can afford to fight climate change, but whether your business can afford to be left out.
Glenn Croston is the founder of StartingUpGreen.com and the Green Biz Blast, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to start and grow greener businesses. He is also the author of "75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference", and "Starting Green", a nuts and bolts guide to starting and growing a successful green business.