A murmur, not a message

800px-US_Capitol_SouthOne reason why it has been so hard for President Obama and environmentalists to persuade Congress to enact climate-change legislation is strong opposition from much of corporate America. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which is seen as the voice of business, all, when it comes down to it,  oppose a carbon tax or an economy-wide scheme to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

They’ve got some sound reasons for doing so: Climate regulation by the US, if it is not followed by regulation in China and India and the rest of the world, will do little to curb global warming, but it will disadvantage the US economy and cost consumers money by raising energy prices. The thing is, China and India and the rest of the world are unlikely to price carbon unless the US leads the way. And right now it’s “free” for fossil fuel companies and utilities and the rest of us to pollute the air with CO2, and so we do so with impunity.

Thankfully, the chamber, NAM and the Journal don’t speak for all of business. That’s why a business coalition known as BICEP (it stands for Business for Climate and Energy Policy) needs to grow in numbers and in political clout. BICEP favors climate regulation, and its members include such well-known companies as eBay, Gap, Levi Strauss, Mars, Nike and Starbucks. But BICEP, pardon the bad pun, doesn’t carry much weight in your nation’s capital, and it’s fairly easy to understand why.

For the US fossil fuel industry, most of which opposes carbon regulation, the climate issue is a matter of the utmost importance. Environmentalists  who worry about the climate crisis increasingly argue that much of the world’s reserves of coal and oil must be left in the ground, unless and until  engineers come up with practical and cost-effective way to capture CO2 from power plants or from the air.  If that argument that we need to burn dramatically less coal and oil prevails, the stock-market value of the fossil fuel industry would collapse. This is the so-called carbon bubble, and it is an existential threat to the fossil fuel companies.

By contrast, climate change is an important issue Mars, Nike, Starbucks and the other companies in BICEP,  but it’s by no means their biggest issue. They are to be commended for stepping out, but so far they have not thrown the full weight of their Washington operations (or, for that matter, their marketing departments)  behind their position.

That was evident last week when BICEP organized a lobbying day on Capitol Hill. I covered the event for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here is how my story begins:

It is not often that big business comes to Washington to seek regulation. But a group of companies including IKEA, Jones Lang LaSalle, Mars, Sprint, and VF Corp did so this week, asking Congress to take steps to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Executives organized by the business coalition BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), testified before a Senate and House task force on climate change, telling lawmakers about their own corporate commitments to reduce carbon pollution. Then they fanned out across the Capitol to lobby on behalf of a clean-energy financing bill.

They did so on the first anniversary of the release of the Climate Declaration, a corporate call-to-action that has been signed by more than 750 companies. It was a reminder to legislators that the US Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry and the Wall Street Journal editorial page do not speak for all of corporate America when they oppose government action to regulate carbon pollution.

“Business is not a monolith,” said Anne Kelley, who coordinates BICEP’s lobbying efforts. “That’s been the message of BICEP since the beginning.”

But if BICEP has shown that hundreds of companies favor political action on climate, its efforts so far have been drowned out in Washington by those of the US Chamber and its allies, a US Senator told the group.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a strong advocate of climate action who convened the hearing, said BICEP’s voice is “a murmur and not a message”, and he urged companies to spend more of their political and reputational capital on the climate issue.

Whitehouse, as the story goes on to explain, urges the BICEP companies to be more forceful. Until more companies understand that the threat of climate change, and the costs of adapting to extreme weather such as heat waves and drought, is a core issue for them, the debate in Washington will be dominated by the likes of the US chamber. And that’s a problem for all of us.

Comments

  1. ed maibach says:

    Great story. One minor correction: India has had a nominal carbon tax on coal since 2010.

  2. “The thing is, China and India and the rest of the world are unlikely to price carbon unless the US leads the way.”

    I would guess that they are equally unlikely to do so if the US does “lead the way”.

    “Environmentalists who worry about the climate crisis…”

    What “climate crisis”? Worry me not your worries. Show me the data. (HINT: There is no data.)

    • Mr. Reid: The data you want to see began accummulating in the late 1800s, after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. To date, there are hundreds of books (and thousands of reports) written on, and about, the data. Take yourself to a good library or bookstore and start reading the books on this broad subject. The ramifications of climate change cover just about every aspect of our lives–the environment, food choices, agriculture, racial/intergenerational rights, politics, health, pollution, energy generation, the right to know, population–I could list more. After you have read up on this broad subject, then look at what is happening “on the ground” in your area and the world and come to your conclusions then, and what you may be able to do about the problem.

      • Shelly,

        The data do not describe a “crisis”.

        The data do document a change in one aspect of climate: temperature. The data do not tell us the ideal global average surface temperature, so we do not know whether we are changing toward the optimum or away from it.

        The data do document a change in one aspect of the atmosphere: CO2 concentration. The data do not tell us the ideal atmospheric CO2 concentration, so we do not know whether we are changing toward the optimum or away from it.

        The climate models, on the other hand, do generate crisis scenarios. However, the crisis scenarios are not supported by the data, even after the relatively poor quality data have been “adjusted”.

        I would agree that the impacts of climate change have been pervasive throughout global history, to the extent we have been able to document global history. I suspect that the impacts of future climate change would also be pervasive, though society is far better positioned to adapt to those changes now than at any time in global history.

        You choose to assume that I am “unread” and unobservant. You assume incorrectly. However, you are entitled to your erroneous assumptions.

        I would caution you that it is almost always unwise to begin vast programs with half-vast ideas. The result is almost always unintended and undesirable consequences. I am unconvinced that our understanding of our climate is yet even half-vast.

  3. Obviously there is plenty of room for debate on the reality of climate change concerns, specifically with regard to the causation between human activity and the climate. However, while I do think there absolutely should be discussion on this, we should also make sure to focus on what governments actually intend to do. The situation presented in the post about the “game theory” strategy is vitally important, even though we have disagreement on what the actual truth of climate change is. Governments are still acting as though there is a strong causation of activity and climate, and so the assumptions of what the developing nations plan to do is extremely relevant for the rest of the world.

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