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.

General Motors, Coca-Cola, NRG Energy: Sustainability leaders at Brainstorm Green

General Motors' Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green
General Motors’ Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green

Dan Akerson, the chief of executive of General Motors, loves the Chevy Volt. Bea Perez of Coca-Cola is backing inventor Dean Kamen, who wants to take a water-purification machine to the global south. David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy, would like to see solar panels on half the rooftops in America.

They all spoke at Fortune Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s conference about business and the environment conference, last week in Laguna Niguel, CA. I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green since its launch in 2008, and, as I wrote the other day, I’ve felt uncomfortable at times when the tone of the event becomes too celebratory, given the scale of the environmental problems we face. Having said that, today I want to showcase a few business executives who are emerging as sustainability leaders.

One is Dan Akerson of GM, the stodgiest and most bureaucratic of the US automakers. A newcomer to Detroit–he is a Naval Academy graduate who made a fortune in private equity at Carlyle, before taking over at GM in 2010–Akerson that his predecessors had been “part of the problem, rather than the solution” when they stood in the way of  regulators who wanted to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and he said the auto industry had been slow to recognize the threat of climate change. Hours after he spoke at Brainstorm Green, GM became the biggest company and the first automaker to endorse the climate declaration from CERES and its BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy) coalition. [click to continue…]

Aron Cramer: Business needs to step up

Aron Cramer

Today, I’m pleased to publish the first in a series of guest posts from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, looking ahead to BSR’s 2011 conference in San Francisco, he writes about the need for business leaders to step outside the boundaries of their companies to re-energize the sustainability agenda.

Most years, people are reluctant to see summer fade into fall. But the summer of 2011 was a bit of a bummer, bringing hurricanes and earthquakes in the American Northeast; ongoing political stagnation in the United States, Europe, and Japan; and signs that the world’s mature economies are stuck in neutral—and may remain that way for some time. Leaving this summer behind feels like a relief.

It’s up to business to turn things around. That’s why BSR has made redefining leadership as the theme of the BSR Conference 2011.

We view this opportunity as having four dimensions, which we outlined in our most recent annual report. In this series of blog posts, I want to elaborate on each one, beginning with the need for business leaders to invest in the infrastructure required for sustainability. [click to continue…]

Greening skiing

This may come under the category of Too Much Information, but I relieved myself the other day into a waterless urinal near the summit of the Park City Mountain Resort. A plaque informed me that each environmentally-friendly urinal at the ski resort saves about 40,000 gallons of fresh water a year.

This is part of what the Park City calls its “Environmental Commitment.” Right on every trail map, the resort says it “recognizes that the environment is one of our most valuable assets.” Now there’s a bold statement. It might be more attention-grabbing to say that  if we don’t do something about global warming soon, Park City will have the climate of, say, Phoenix, before too many decades go by.

But what does it mean for the ski industry to make an environmental commitment? Skiing requires chopping down big trees on beautiful mountains to make way for ski runs and slope-side second homes. It’s an utterly unnecessary pursuit that usually takes place far from population centers, requiring air travel or long car trips. It’s energy-intensive, too. Think of artificial snow-making, and all those steaming hot tubs.

Still, I love to ski. Just being in the mountains makes me happy. And skiing has been a great way for me to spend time over the years with my brothers and my daughters (that’s my older daughter, Sarah, who came with me this time.)

As a tree-hugging (not literally) skier hoping for insight into this conundrum, I have been reading an advance copy of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, by Auden Schendler. Schendler is executive director of community and environmental responsibility at Aspen Skiing Company, a business known for its sustainability efforts.

I’m halfway through the book, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. Right up front, Schendler takes on those who tell him that the best thing that the Aspen ski resort and, for the matter, the entire town of Aspen could do for sustainability would be to shut down:

Certainly Aspen’s lifestyle is lavish. But then, so is the entire U.S. lifestyle. You’ve heard the stations before: we’re 5 percent of the world’s population, and we use 25 percent of the planet’s resources. Americans burn more fossil fuel per capita than any nation on earth…

So what do we do? Close down Aspen, then close down the United States? The U.S. is hugely wasteful compared to Europe…and actually, Europe is pretty bad compared to India…Do we shut down Paris?

In short there’s no way to draw the moral energy line in the sand showing which activities are OK and which are not.

Fair enough. So the more reasonable question for Aspen, Park City and every other business is: Are you doing as much as you can to be environmentally responsible?

Park City’s record is mixed in that regard. The resort says that it offsets 100% of its power consumption from renewable energy sources—a claim that is hard to verify, without knowing more detail, but let’s assume that it’s true. The resort’s fleet of snowcats is “powered entirely by biodiesel fuel.” One of the best things about staying in Park City area is the free, well-run public bus system which shuttles people around resorts, lodging and restaurants. Then there are those waterless urinals. You can read more at www.saveoursnow.net.

But much of this appears to be for show. On the mountain, you can eat chili in a paper bowl that is 100% compostable, but the bowls get thrown in with other trash, making the claim worthless. There’s lots of self-congratulation on the website, but no mention (that I could find) of the resort’s overall carbon footprint, or its goals.

And, as Schendler argues in his book, the most important measures of a company’s environmental commitment may be well its actions in the policy arena, because that’s where the climate change problem will be solved, or not. He writes:

Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement policy reductions: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility.

This is a great point. Aspen measures up well in this regard—it filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit requiring EPA to regulate GHG emissions. It also joined a Greenpeace campaign against Kimberly Clark, the forest products firm. I’ve never heard of Park City doing anything like that.

More to the point, why don’t we hear more from the entire ski industry on the climate-change issue? They have databases of skiers—why not enlist their customers to support federal action? The same could be said for the travel industry. It’s not just ski areas, but beaches that are threatened by climate disruptions. Where are Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and the airlines when it comes to global warming policy? Actually, I know where the airlines are—they don’t want their emissions to be regulated. Marriott, by contrast, is taking steps to help preserve rainforests.

Unfortunately, only a handful of progressive companies, including Nike and Starbucks, have taken bold positions on the climate change issue. They’re part of a coalition called Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP.) Only when a lot more companies join them will the odds get better than we can truly save our snow.