There’s a Leadership Vacuum on Climate Change. Business Should Fill It


This Earth Day is different. The world’s largest economy is governed by a president who has called global warming an “expensive hoax” on multiple occasions. He has threatened to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, and appointed a head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who as recently as last month has reported not believing that human activity or carbon dioxide are primary contributors to climate change, contradicting 150 years of basic physics and decades of scientific consensus. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by over 30%, and the agency’s staff by 15,000 jobs. This major shift in the executive branch’s attitude toward climate change leaves a big void in the U.S.’s — and the world’s — environmental stewardship, one that the private sector must fill.

Every Earth Day it’s tempting to write that “every day is Earth Day” and that we need to protect our shared resources. It’s trite…because it’s true, of course. A stable climate, clean air, clean water, safe food, and on and on, are not just nice-to-haves, but are critical for our well-being. Yet it seems to surprise many in the “environmental regulations kill business” camp that these basic biophysical supports for life also support business.

We could endlessly debate the merits of the costs and benefits of specific regulations, but at the macro level, a law as important as the Clean Air Act not only is not expensive — it’s probably the most profitable regulation in human history. Some sectors and companies bear more of the up-front expense of tackling carbon emissions, with the energy sector being the most obvious one. But many studies have estimated that the reduction in health care costs saves the economy, and thus all companies and citizens within that economy, tens of trillions of dollars. And that’s just direct health care benefits. There’s much more to keeping the economy clean. It’s increasingly strange to have to say this, but workers struggling to breathe are not productive, places without access to safe water, like Flint, Michigan — not to mention 3,000 other U.S. counties where lead rates are even higher — have trouble building a strong economy, and people in cities fighting rising seas or extreme drought do not make great customers. In short, the economy can’t thrive if people and the planet suffer.

Weakening air, water, and climate protection is a lot like smoking two packs a day and eating mostly sugar, and then wondering why you feel awful. And yet this administration seems hell-bent on allowing our air to become less clean (when 40% of us already live in areas with “unhealthful levels of ozone (smog) or particle pollution”), allowing toxic pesticides to remain in our food system, and allowing our burgeoning climate collapse to accelerate. (For example, the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast, a harbinger of a dead global coral system, which could cost the world a trillion dollars and make the planet noticeably less rich and vital.) Even though many people around Trump are telling him to go slow on pulling the U.S. from the global climate agreement, his clear disdain for climate discussions sends a dangerous signal to the world.

Business leaders can choose to send a different signal. The week of Earth Day has always been a time for business to come out in support of the planet. For years, it was mainly about employees volunteering to plant some trees, but as companies have grown more sophisticated about the role of sustainability in their strategies, and about the dangers and opportunities in a changing climate, their announcements have gotten bigger and bolder.

Just this week, three large companies demonstrated serious commitments to reducing emissions across their value chains (where most companies’ emissions lie):

  • Walmart announced that it would ask suppliers to reduce greenhouse gases by 1 billion tons by 2030. And while 1 billion is only a fraction of global emissions, which run in the 40-billion-ton range annually, it’s a lot for one company to take responsibility for. It’s 50 times Walmart’s 2010 supply chain goal, and it sets a high bar for others to aspire to.
  • Apple, which already sources renewable energy for nearly all its operations, announced that three more suppliers were committing to 100% renewable energy. (Disclosure: I’ve done paid speaking for executives at Walmart and Apple.)
  • Swedish clothing giant H&M set a “carbon positive” goal for its entire supply chain by 2040. In apparel, this is more than aggressive.

These announcements follow some greenhouse gas goals that food giants General Mills and Kellogg set for their supply chains last year. And even without the added element of supply chain targets, there are now hundreds of large companies with science-based carbon targets or 100% renewable energy goals.

I realize that many firms are fighting for environmental protection with one hand and trying to claw back environmental rules with the other. For example, the major auto companies are investing in new technologies and electric vehicles while asking the Trump administration to weaken fuel efficiency standards.

But companies have some new opportunities to let the world know where they stand. The next week will be bookended by two big marches on Washington. Scientists, feeling pressured by anti-fact rhetoric on many issues, have organized a March for Science on Earth Day (the need to publicly say “science matters” is terribly sad, but apparently it’s necessary these days). A week later, there will be a Climate March, on April 29, and hundreds of thousands are expected to march in different cities around the country. So far, companies have been more comfortable supporting the science march, but even though some anti-corporate rhetoric will be on display at the climate event, companies should stiffen their spines and step into the fray. (Here are 16 ways companies can support the climate march.)

I realize that some CEOs will see speaking out in favor of environmental protection as a partisan issue, especially in our politically charged environment. But the science on this isn’t blue or red, and the needs of customers, suppliers, and shareholders are clear. GE CEO Jeff Immelt framed some recent remarks along these lines, saying, “We believe climate change is real and the science is well accepted. Our customers, partners, and countries are demanding technology that generates power while reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency, and reducing cost.”

I hope more business leaders in the U.S. will follow his lead. A growing understanding that they need climate protection to save their physical assets, supply chains, and the economy at large should be significant motivation to step out.

And the quicker they realize that an administration that impedes progress toward a clean economy is not serving their interests, the faster they’ll rush to fill a leadership vacuum — before their global competitors do.

Source: iPromo News