The fossil fuel divestment movement is failing. Except it’s not.

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Harvard divestment activists sit in

Despite all of the sound and fury set off by the campaign to divest fossil fuels — and there has been plenty — Bill McKibben, 350.org and their allies have persuaded only a handful of big institutions to sell off the coal, oil and gas holdings in their endowments. They’ve had little or no direct effect on publicly-traded oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and none on the government-owned oil companies of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq that are shielded from chants of rag-tag college students telling them to “leave it in the ground.”

That said, by any measure other than financial, the divestment campaign has been a big success.

That’s the argument I make in a story about divestment, published today by YaleEnvironment360 under the headline Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement May Ultimately Win. Here’s how it begins:

Nestled in Vermont’s bucolic Champlain valley, Middlebury College is a seedbed of environmental activism. Middlebury students started 350.org, the environmental organization that is fighting climate change and coordinating the global campaign for fossil-fuel divestment. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmentalist who is spearheading the campaign, has taught there since 2001. Yet Middlebury has declined to sell the oil, gas, and coal company holdings in its $1 billion endowment.

McKibben’s alma mater, Harvard University — which has a $36 billion endowment, the largest of any university — also has decided not to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Indeed, virtually all of the United States’ wealthiest universities, foundations, and public pension funds have resisted pressures to sell their stakes in fossil fuel companies. And while a handful of big institutional investors — Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Stanford University, and AXA, a French insurance company — have pledged to sell some of their coal investments, coal companies account for less than 1 percent of the value of publicly traded stocks and an even smaller sliver of endowments.

Put simply, the divestment movement is not even a blip on the world’s capital markets.

Yet McKibben says the campaign is succeeding “beyond our wildest possible dreams.”

Why? Well, you can read the rest of the story to find out, but in essence, the divestment campaign has in short order built a vibrant global climate movement, which is exactly what McKibben and his allies set out to do nearly three years ago. (See Do the Math: Bill McKibben takes on big oil, my 2012 interview with him.) Hundreds of US college campuses, cities and foundations have been forced to respond to divestment demands. They’ve debated and analyzed the climate threat. And, as the story explains, even when institutions decide not to divest — often for good reason, I might add — they almost always do something. What’s more, the campaign has spread wildly, er, widely to Europe and  Asia, thanks to social media, and it has taken on a life of its own, as a decentralized but loosely connected series of campaigns that are gathering momentum.

As a practical matter, divestment has re-opened an important conversation about whether and how institutions and individuals are investing with their values in mind. Last week, writing on my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, I asked: Why won’t foundations divest fossil fuels? Most of the big ones have not, but they are all talking about “impact investing,” that is, aligning more of their endowment money with their programming goals. Some of that money is flowing to climate solutions including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.And it would not surprise me to see one or two big foundations–Bloomberg Philanthropies, maybe?–decide to divest.

I invite you to comment on the divestment debate, preferably at YaleE360 or at Nonprofit Chronicles where the stories can be found.

We’re losing the climate battle. So we may need to harvest CO2 from the sky.

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Carbon Engineering’s new plant in Squamish, BC

The Guardian this week published my latest story about direct air capture of CO2, a topic that has fascinated me since the late 2000s. My 2012 Amazon Kindle Single, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, chronicled the very beginnings of the air capture story;  since then, startups working on harvesting CO2 from the sky have made tangible progress, as this story indicates. Here’s how it begins:

In Squamish, British Columbia, a Canadian town halfway between Vancouver and Whistler where the ocean meets the mountains, a startup led by Harvard physicist David Keith – and funded in part by Bill Gates – is building an industrial plant to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

Carbon Engineering aims to eventually build enough plants to suck many millions of tons of CO2 out of the air to reduce climate change. Its technology could help capture dispersed emissions – that is, emissions from cars, trucks, ships, planes or farm equipment – or even to roll back atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

The Calgary-based company is one of a crop of startups placing bold bets on technology designed to directly capture CO2 from the air. Lately, at least three have shown signs of progress. New York City-based Global Thermostat, which is led by CEO Graciela Chichilnisky and Peter Eisenberger, a Columbia University professor and former researcher for Exxon and Bell Labs, tells me it has recently received an infusion of capital from an as-yet-unnamed US energy company. As part of a demonstration project financed by Audi, Swiss-based Climeworks in April captured CO2 from the air and supplied it to a German firm called Sunfire, which then recycled it into a zero-carbon diesel fuel.

These companies are a long, long way from success, it must be said. Deploying direct air capture at a scale sufficient to make a difference to the climate would be a vast and costly undertaking. But their work matters because of the increasing likelihood that we will need to deploy “negative emissions” technologies like direct-air capture to avoid pushing through the 2 degrees of global warming that governments have agreed is a safe upper limit. This isn’t as well understood as it should be, in my view.

Climate science is ridiculously complicated and, as a non-scientist, I’ve struggled to make sense of the conflicting claims about how dire our situation is likely to become. Some people tell me that environmentalists and climate scientists are alarmists, exaggerating the dangers we face and squelching dissent. Matt Ridley, a writer whose work I admire, makes that argument in this excellent, in-depth podcast. Others say just the opposite, that scientists and economists feel pressure to underplay the seriousness of the problem, for fear of leading people to despair and inaction. Oliver Geden, head of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, made this argument recently in the journal Nature, writing: “The climate policy mantra – that time is running out for 2C but we can still make it if we act now – is scientific nonsense.” Esquire magazine, of all places, published a long and powerful story last week under this headline:

When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job

Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.

It’s an unsettling read.

Here, meantime, is how David Roberts put it in an excellent analysis at Vox:

The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit.

The fundamental problem is that the world’s biggest GHG emitters — China, the US,  Germany, the UK and India — are unlikely to stop burning fossil fuels anytime soon for a whole bunch of reasons, including, in the case of India, the fact that hundreds of millions of its poor people don’t have access to electricity. As Roberts puts it:

Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.

No matter what happens this winter in Paris.

Last year, in a report that deserved more attention than it got, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that avoiding the goal of 2 °C of global warming will likely require the global deployment of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the air.(For more about the need for carbon removal, here’s a good story from Brad Plumer at Vox.) Such technologies don’t exist today, at meaningful scale.

This is why direct air capture matters.

Edelman’s climate problem

magnifying-glass-valuesLast summer, the big PR company Edelman faced a problem that no amount of spin could resolve. Kert Davies, the former head of research for Greenpeace who now leads the Climate Investigations Center, had surveyed big public relations companies to see where they stood on the issue of climate change.

Edelman waffled. The company published a position on climate change that raised as many questions as it answered. Last August, I wrote a story about the issue for the Guardian that began like this:

A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

Since then, an insider told me, “a struggle for the soul” of Edelman as been unfolding inside the firm,which has more than 5,500 employees and reported worldwide revenues of $768m in FY2014. Some of those employees work for fossil-fuel clients who oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and want to extract as much oil and gas from the ground as they can. Others work for companies like Unilever, Starbucks and The North Face that have lobbied for meaningful climate regulation.

Yesterday, I revisited the story and reported in the Guardian that Edelman has lost four valued staff members, all of them leaders of Edelman’s “Business and Social Purpose Practice,” and two influential clients, the We Mean Business coalition and Nike, at least in part because of its refusal to take a stand on climate change.

Does this mean that the fossil-fuel crowd inside Edelman has won? It sure looks that way, but it’s hard to know. Edelman executives declined to be interviewed for my story. No one was willing to explain what the climate position means if, indeed, it means anything at all. 

Richard Edelman, in Davos

Richard Edelman, in Davos

This surprised me, not because Edelman execs are obligated to talk to reporters (they’re not), but because I took at face value the company’s platitudes about trust, values, corporate responsibility and openness. Company president Richard Edelman: “Transparency is not optional.” And: “We strongly urge business to take the chance to redefine value as being also about values.”

As a reporter, I’ve dealt with the Edelman firm for more than a decade; my relationships with people there have been excellent, until this climate issue came along. Shortly after I was laid off by FORTUNE in 2008, I did some writing and consulting for Edelman. I soon learned I wasn’t cut out for PR, but again, my experience with the firm was good. Call me naive, but I thought Edelman was a different kind of PR firm.

Now I can’t help but conclude that they are no different from their peers, as yesterday’s story indicates:

Some clues about where Edelman is headed can be gleaned from a new set of values and a statement of purpose published last month. The statement makes explicit the company’s willingness to work on both sides of controversial issues, including climate change:

We believe that independently held, opposing views deserve to be heard in the court of public opinion and we assert our role as a firm to being advocates for our clients.

Doing so doesn’t condone every action every client takes or imply implicit support for every position a client may adopt, but does reflect our absolute commitment and support of their right to exercise their freedom of expression.

It also grants each employee the “right to elect not to work on a piece of business that does not align with his or her personal beliefs.”

In a recent video to employees about the new statement of purpose, Matt Harrington, Edelman’s global chief operating officer, said simply: “We exist to be advocates for our clients.”

Which is OK, I guess, and wouldn’t even be a story if Edelman hadn’t tried to have it both ways on climate.

The upshot is that Edelman has lost some talented people and a couple of clients.

We’ll never know what would have happened had the company taken a different path. Instead of mumbo-jumbo about how “marketing communications” has to become “communications marketing,” Edelman could have adopted a bold, values-based position on climate change. It could have worked with its more forward-thinking fossil-fuel clients, like Shell, to bring them along on the issue. It could have positioned itself as the go-to PR shop for companies and NGOs that take sustainability seriously.

It could have walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

That’s a story I would have liked to write.

Ramez Naam, ecomodernist

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Ramez Naam

I was introduced to a set of ideas known as “ecomodernism” back in 2009, when I read Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued that cities are “greener” than the countryside, that low-carbon nuclear power will be need to curb climate change and that genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow more crops on less land, thus preserving nature.

Ecomodernist ideas have gathered steam since then, driven in large part by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the founders of The Breakthrough Institute. Recently, Michael and Ted herded together a group of scientists and economists — including Stewart, David Keith, Mark Lynas and Roger Pielke Jr. — to publish An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They write:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

In mid-June, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogues, a conference in Sausalito where many of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto spoke. I’m increasingly persuaded that their arguments make more sense than the low-tech, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, all “natural,” small-is-beautiful, local-beats-global approach to environmental issues pushed by the most traditional environmentalists. And even those green groups that are market-friendly, technology-friendly and science-friendly hesitate to stand up in favor of nuclear energy or GMOs.

All this is by way of introduction to Ramez Naam, the author of a book called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. He, too, is an ecomodernist, and a believer that regulated capitalism and technology will help us solve our environmental problems. I wrote about Ramez and his book today in The Guardian, in a story headlined: Ramez Naam: Capitalism is not the enemy of climate.

Here’s how the story begins:

Futurist and author Ramez Naam is an optimist, even when it comes to the problem of climate change, and for good reason.

As a student of world history, Naam has seen how humanity has flourished in the last century. People live longer and suffer less than before. Doom-and-gloom predictions have not just been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Take food: some forecast that the world would starve by the 1970s. While population has doubled since then, the food supply has grown by two-and-half times, and today there are more obese people than malnourished people in the world.

“This is the best of times,” Naam writes in his 2013 nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “We live in a period of health, wealth and freedom never seen before.”

Natural resources – notably the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases – may be limited, Naam argues, but ideas and innovation are not.

The story goes on to talk about why, when it comes to climate change, the most important idea is a carbon tax, coupled with investment in energy R&D. You can read the rest of the story here. I’d also encourage you to read the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Ceres and the “inside” game

Oil-rig-pumpIt’s been 45 years since the first Earth Day, and, as I was reminded when reading this brief history, some 20 million Americans — one in 10 of us — participated on April 22, 1970. That took organizing. And it delivered results: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, laws regulating the disposal of hazardous waste and the quality of drinking water, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, regulating chemicals in food, drugs and cosmetics. Such was the power of the environmental movement.

I’m inclined to think that environmentalists today ought to devote more of our money and time towards building or rebuilding that movement. Some–Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace–are trying to do so, but other, big, well-funded organizations continue to play the “inside” game, working to persuade elites–federal, state and local officials, corporate executives, investors–to change. Success will require both grass-roots power and policy change, to be sure, but without a more powerful movement, “inside” strategies aren’t going to get us where we need to go.

Last week in The Guardian, I wrote about the Carbon Asset Risk initiative, a campaign coordinated by Ceres and Carbon Tracker, with support from the Global Investor Coalition. To succeed, this campaign will require action by the SEC, investors and the boards of directors and executives of oil companies who, if all goes according to plan, will shift their capital outlays into low-carbon energy.

Here’s how my story begins:

Can fossil fuel companies be transformed into allies in the fight against climate change?

As unlikely as it might seem, a coalition of environmental groups and investors is trying to persuade coal, oil and gas companies to turn away from carbon-polluting sources of energy and invest in low-carbon alternatives.

Ceres, a Boston-based network of investors, companies and nonprofits, andCarbon Tracker, a London-based nonprofit that has popularized the notion of a “carbon bubble,” have organized a new campaign around carbon asset risks.

The campaign aims to get fossil fuel companies first to disclose the risks created by their dependence on carbon-intensive assets, and then, as Ceres puts it, “ensure they are using shareholder capital prudently” in a world that takes “the economic threat of climate change seriously.” Not today’s world, needless to say, but a world that the groups fervently hope will arrive in the not too distant future.

I dearly hope to be proven wrong but, much as I admire the people at Ceres, my gut reaction to this strategy is….are you kidding me?

As The Guardian reported last week, BP (“Beyond Petroleum”) invested billions of dollars in clean and low-carbon energy in the 1980s and 1990s “but later abandoned meaningful efforts to move away from fossil fuels.”

Now Ceres wants the SEC and Wall Street to persuade BP to invest in clean energy. Again.

I’m tempted to wrap up with the overused cliche about insanity, but I’ll resist.

You can read the rest of my story here.

How “evil” Monsanto aims to protect the planet

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Iowa cornfield shows signs of erosion and fertilizer runoff. Climate Corporation aims to help farmers use fertilizer more efficiently. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Monsanto has been called one of the US’s most hated companies (see this, which is credible, and this, which is not). Maybe that’s because the St. Louis-based agricultural giant has enemies who are determined, as well as self-interested. (See this petition to Hillary Clinton from the so-called Organic Consumers Association.) Maybe it’s because the  St. Louis-based ag giant historically has done a poor job of explaining itself to the public. (Farmers appear to like Monsanto, which sold them $16 billion worth of seeds and crop-protection chemicals last year.) Whatever the explanation, Monsanto has been dogged by a series of misunderstandings and outright lies.

As David Friedberg, the CEO of Climate Corporation, wrote in an email to employees after he sold his San Francisco-based data startup to Monsanto in 2013:

Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth…

When I did my own research—to the source and in the science—I was amazed at how far these inaccurate statements had gone and how wrong so many people were, thinking they were right because they repeated the same things others did.

In the email, which was reported in The New Yorker, Friedberg, a former Google employee, goes on to say:

Did you know: Google sues more of its customers each year than Monsanto does? Google spends 3 times as much as Monsanto on Federal lobbying? There are more ex-Googlers in the Obama administration than there are ex-Monsanto employees?

Read the rest, please. You may be surprised by how much you’ve heard about Monsanto is wrong.

Recently, I went to see Friedberg in San Francisco to learn more about Climate Corp. and the potential for what’s often called precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is  a growth business (pun intended) and that’s a very good thing. A bunch of companies, including well-established firms like John Deere and DuPont’s Pioneer, as well as startups like FarmLogs and Farmers Business Network, are competing to unlock the power of agronomic data and make farming more efficient. It’s one more example of how technology is helping to drive sustainability.

The Guardian published my story about Friedberg and Climate Corp. today. Here’s how it begins.

David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation, expected pushback when he decided to sell his San Francisco-based big data company to Monsanto. He was surprised, though, when some of the loudest criticism came from his own father.

Lionel Friedberg – a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 1989 documentary, Crisis in the Atmosphere, was one of the first films to highlight the problem of global warming – reacted to the news by berating his son. “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world?” Friedberg recalled his father saying. “I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

As Friedberg the younger wrote in an email to Climate Corp employees after the 2013 sale, being chastised by his own dad “was really hard”. But he’s nothing if not a believer in facts, and so he marshaled enough evidence to persuade his father that the $930m sale to Monsanto was not just good for his business, but good for the planet. His email is worth reading, particularly if, like Friedberg’s dad, you’re a critic of Monsanto.

Now Friedberg and his colleagues need to persuade the world’s farmers that Climate Corp will help them save money, improve yields, adapt to climate change and improve the environment. And if the company manages to turn around a few more Monsanto critics, that would be a bonus.

Founded in 2006, Climate Corp is a leading player in the fast-growing business of precision agriculture. Using a data-driven approach, it seeks the most efficient use of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, land and water. It’s the next big idea in farming, Friedberg claimed when we met at his office in San Francisco. He compared the approach to the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution and modern plant breeding.

The story goes on to explain how Climate Corp. hopes to deliver environmental benefits as well as financial returns to farmers. You can read the rest here.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

59a428e7-4ca9-4d6c-a14e-79964bedde8c-1020x612Back in January, I wrote a blog post headlined A modest proposal for big green NGOs that suggested, in what was intended to be a helpful way, that the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy urge their corporate allies to speak up in support of the EPA’s proposed rules to regulate coal plants, a cornerstone of the Obama administration climate policy.

They all assured me that they are doing the very best they can to persuade big companies to do so.

Well, it turns out they’re not having much success.

Today, The Guardian published my story about those corporate allies, headlined Why Corporate America is Reluctant to Take a Stand on Climate Action. I surveyed 50 companies that have worked with EDF, WWF or The Nature Conservancy asking them for their position on the EPA Clean Power Plan.

Guess how many of the 50 told me that they are working alongside their environmental partners to support the plan? Three–Google, Mars and Starbucks.

Most are staying out of the fight but as Anne Kelly of Ceres, which is lobbying for the plan, told me, their “silence isn’t neutrality.” Instead, their silence allows the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative trade associations to speak for the business community on climate and energy issues. And, as you probably know, the chamber is no fan of climate regulation.

Here’s how my story begins:

Many environmental groups consider the Obama administration’s plan to regulate carbon-spewing coal plants, which aims to cut carbon pollution by 30%, as one of our last chances to win the fight against climate change.

But the vast majority of their top corporate partners – companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, FedEx, UPS, Target and Walmart, which have worked with environmental NGOs for years – aren’t backing them up, according to a Guardian survey.

The survey consisted of calls and emails to nearly 50 corporations that work with three environmental groups – Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund US – that have identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan as a top priority. These are Fortune 500 global companies that tout their sustainability efforts and celebrate their environmental partnerships.

Just three of them – Starbucks, Mars and Google – support the Clean Power Plan, which is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change efforts. Caterpillar and CSX Corp, a coal-carrying railroad, oppose the EPA plan. The vast majority take no position.

The reluctance of companies to take a stand raises questions about the depth of partnerships between companies and NGOs. By remaining quiet, these companies make it harder for the EPA to roll out the plan in the face of vehement opposition from fossil fuel companies and Republicans. “Silence isn’t neutral,” says Anne Kelly of Ceres, who is organizing companies to support the EPA.

The lack of public support could jeopardize the clean power plan, and – if the US isn’t able to make a strong climate commitment as a result – could ultimately undermine the success of the global climate talks in Paris this year.

The companies that won’t get involved say it’s because the regulation of power plant emissions is not core to their business. Environmentalists maintain that climate change is everybody’s business.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of the story, and share it. I also put together a sidebar compiling the corporate responses that I collected to my survey.

I’m sorry to say that all of this points to the shallowness of much  corporate rhetoric about “sustainability.” It also tells me that, more than ever, we need a political movement to demand government action to stop climate pollution. Companies need to know that if they don’t take a stand on behalf of the climate, they’re going to hear about it from activist groups (where are you, Greenpeace, now that we need you?) and they’re going to risk losing the support of their employees and customers.

Put simply, without a whole lot more people pushing them in the right direction, GE, Goldman Sachs, IBM and Walmart aren’t going to get us where we need to go. Not even close.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m feeling that way. I must add that none of this is personal. I like and respect the people I know at EDF, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. They’re smart, dedicated and hard-working. But they’re mostly playing the same insiders game that failed to get climate legislation through Congress back in 2009.

I also admire the sustainability executives at many of the companies that are sitting on the sidelines of the climate fight. They’re great internal advocates for the cause, and they’re not to blame for this widespread corporate indifference. It’s their CEOs who need a wake-up call.

In the end, the issue of global warming is really not all that complicated: It’s time to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for carbon pollution. That’s just wrong, and that’s why the EPA rules should be everybody’s business.

Google: Much more than an Internet company

google_flat_logoIt’s hard to imagine life without Google–not just the search engine, but Gmail, maps, calendar and cloud storage. I could give up Twitter, Facebook and (reluctantly) Amazon, but Google and Apple are embedded deeply into my life. It’s not just me, of course. Google and Apple are among the world’s most valuable companies.

To its credit, Google has decided to invest some of its vast wealth in bold, world-changing ideas that could take years to pay off. Why? That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

In 2008, Google pranked everyone. It was April Fool’s Day and the tech giant uploaded a fake website claiming to be starting the first human settlement on Mars, with a little help from the airline company, Virgin.

Project Virgle had a 100-year development plan and an application for would-be Mars colonists.

Virgle does not sound quite as far-fetched now as it did then. More than any other company, Google has proven willing to support bold, costly and unorthodox projects far from its core business. But unlike the fictional Virgle, a plan to escape the Earth, many of Google’s biggest bets, including its investments of more than $1.5bn in renewable energy, aim to save it.

These efforts are spread across the company – software to track forests at Google Earth Engine, clean tech investments at Google Ventures, and Nest and its energy-saving thermostat, which Google acquired last year for $3.2bn. The most audacious, though, are found in a unit known as Google[x], where inventors, scientists and engineers seek solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

Google[x] is developing self-driving cars, which would make automobile travel radically more efficient, as well as energy-generating kites, self-flying vehicles to deliver goods and high-altitude balloons to provide cheap internet to people living in rural or remote areas.

We’ve come to expect this kind of thing from Google, but no other US company that I’m aware of has shown such boldness:

Imagine if General Motors invested in drought-resistant crops, or Disney decided to build small nuclear power plants, or Microsoft got into the algae business. That is the kind of boundary crashing that has become commonplace at Google.

This is about more than “doing good,” I’m sure. If even one of Google’s big, long-shot projects turns into a real business, the company will do very well for itself. Now, it’s being widely reported, Apple is at work on an electric car. This is all very encouraging.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Green business, and its limits

2015-3-clean-energy-ss-ph1-WBLast week, Sierra Magazine, the magazine of the Sierra Club, published my story headlined The 100% Club, about the impressive commitments that a growing number of big companies are making around renewable energy. The story highlighted Ikea, Intel and Mars, but I could just as easily have written about Apple or Google or Walmart, all of whom are buying lots of wind and solar power. Here’s how the story begins:

Steve Howard, a 49-year-old Brit, has devoted most of his career to fighting climate change. He spent seven years as CEO of the Climate Group, a global nonprofit whose goal is “a prosperous, low-carbon future for all.” He sounds the part: “There is no peak sun, there is no peak wind,” he declares. “We struck sun and we struck wind before we struck oil.”

These days, Howard pursues his climate activism as chief sustainability officer of the IKEA Group, the world’s largest furniture retailer. IKEA has invested $2 billion in wind and solar power to meet its goal of producing as much renewable energy as it consumes by 2020. “We clearly see them as our future sources of energy,” he says.

IKEA is just one of dozens of big companies that are making significant investments in clean energy. In fact, a majority of Fortune 100 companies have invested in solar or wind power or have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, or both, according to Power Forward 2014: Why the World’s Largest Companies Are Investing in Renewable Energy, a report from the sustainability advocacy group Ceres. They are doing so because they believe it makes good business sense: The costs of solar and wind are falling, state and federal governments offer generous subsidies, and fossil fuel prices can be volatile. Some see green energy commitments as a way to burnish their reputations. Still others are responding to carbon regulation–Europe, California, nine northeastern states, and British Columbia all tax or cap greenhouse gas emissions, and some business leaders believe that many other governments will, and should, follow suit. Whatever the reasons, these companies are signaling that they accept the reality of climate change and proving that renewable energy is neither a job killer nor a drag on economic growth.

The list of companies that have promised to purchase all of their energy from renewable power by 2020– the so-called 100% club — includes insurer Swiss Re, British telecommunications group BT, H&M, Mars, Nestle, and Philips. Kohl’s, Whole Foods Market, Staples, TD Bank, Herman Miller, REI, and the Philadelphia Phillies are already there, although some are getting there by buying Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs, which may or may not be effective, depending on who you ask.

But here’s the thing: It’s not nearly enough. The most telling data point in the story is this:

The 1,300 companies and nonprofits that have joined the EPA’s Green Power Partnership, a voluntary program to promote clean energy, collectively use 28 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually. That sounds like a lot, and it is–but total U.S. electricity consumption is 3.832 trillion kWh.

This underscores the limits of voluntary action. Then there’s this: Self-reported greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s 500 largest businesses – which include many of the companies named above — actually grew by 3.1% between 2010 and 2013, according to a Thomson Reuters report released in December.

So while plenty of “good” companies are stepping up to do their part, their efforts are being more than offset by others. That’s why government action to curb GHG emissions, particularly the EPA’s Clean Power Plan here in the US, is so important. Those companies that are serious about climate change will demonstrate it by spending some of their political capital to back the EPA.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Who lobbies for the outdoors?

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Increasingly, I’m struck by the power of conservative business lobbies in Washington, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. They speak effectively on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and often claim to speak for all of business when it comes to the issue of climate change — even though broad sectors of the US economy, notably agriculture and tourism (not to mention coastal real estate), are threatened by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Last week in the Guardian, I looked at what’s called the outdoor economy — a sector that is big and growing.The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation, which includes hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and motorcycling, supports 6.1m jobs in the US. That’s more than fossil fuels, some say, although the numbers are disputed.

What’s inarguable is that the oil, gas and coal industries carry a lot more clout in DC than does the outdoor industry. Here’s how my story begins:

Two small California ski resorts, Dodge Ridge and Badger Pass, shut down in January as temperatures climbed to near-record highs and weeks passed without snow. With the Sierras suffering a historic drought, it’s hard to say for certain if they’ll reopen.

The ski-industry closings are a small but representative setback for what a new report calls the outdoor economy — that is, “the stream of economic output that results from the protection and sustainable use of America’s lands and waters when they are preserved in a largely undeveloped state”.

Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic force. It accounts for “more direct jobs than oil, natural gas and mining combined”, according to the report published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, in January.

But in the political arena, those businesses that depend upon nature are decided underdogs when they battle adversaries, such as the fossil fuel industry, which would like to see more exploration for oil and gas on federal lands.

If you’ve ever visited one of the big national parks out west, you can see why the outdoor industry is outgunned (pardon the expression) in your nation’s capital. Typically, the hotels, motels, restaurants, fishing outfitters and the like on the perimeter of the  parks are small businesses. They can’t hire lobbyists or make meaningful campaign contributions.

One company that has done a fine job of promoting the outdoors is The North Face. They ran a great Internet and TV ad campaign last year, encouraging more people to spend time in beautiful places. As more Americans spend more time outdoors, it seems likely that they will want to see this nation’s most beautiful places protected. Admittedly, that’s a slow and indirect way to build a constituency for climate action.

Take two minutes and enjoy this North Face commercial, set to the music of Woody Guthrie, performed by My Morning Jacket. And is it just me or did Jeep steal this idea for its Super Bowl ad?

You can read the rest of my story here.