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...]

The eerie quiet of the insurance industry

If there’s one industry that ought to be concerned about the threat of global warming, it’s the insurance industry. OK, the ski industry, too, but I digress.

Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, recently put it this way: “Climate change is an obvious physical threat to us all, but increasingly it also poses a serious financial threat to the insurance industry…” When extreme weather causes damage, insurers pay.

So you’d expect insurance companies to be among the most forceful voices in corporate America calling for the regulation greenhouse gas emissions.

Uh, no. They’ve been eerily quiet.

And, at the least, you’d expect them to be proudly steering some of their massive investments to clean energy or energy efficiency projects aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Wrong again.

“It’s surprising, in a sense, because they have so much to lose from climate change,” says Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit coalition of investor and environmental groups. But, she notes, insurance is a conservative business. The industry is all about risk, but it doesn’t want to take the risk of speaking out on climate change. [click to continue...]

Climate, insurance and the next financial meltdown

Miami Beach oceanfront properties

Well-to-do Brazilians are buying up luxury condos on the beach in Miami, The Times reported last week. “They are taking Miami by storm,” one real estate executive declared.

It’s an unfortunate metaphor.

That’s because, sooner or later, storms will likely damage or destroy much of the property on the Florida shoreline. And, while a beachfront real estate revival may be welcomed by developers who, according to the Times, are “starting or restarting ambitious condo projects,” the risks are being borne not by the developers or by the condo buyers or even by private insurance companies but, for the most part, by a state-run, not-for-profit, tax-exempt corporation called the Citizens Property Insurance Company. Citizens has become the biggest insurance company in Florida since it was created in 2002, and many of its policies ($232 billion worth, according to a 2009 story in the Miami Herald, referenced here) are written on riskier, coastal properties. As a government-sponsored entity, Citizens has the implicit backing of Florida taxpayers who, you can be sure, will turn to the rest of us for help if the big one hits.

“Who’s on the hook when a wall of water hits the coast of south Florida? You and me,” says Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit alliance of investors and environmental groups. Her  job is to raise awareness of climate risk within the insurance industry, and to prod the industry to respond.

It’s not just a problem in Florida–many states are assuming the risk of natural disasters, despite the rising costs of extreme weather events, which are more frequent and more severe because of climate change, scientists say. So is the federal government: The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has $1 trillion in exposure, according to Ceres, and it’s $20 billion in debt. Although no individual storm can be attributed to climate change, the rising prevalence and intensity of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires are consistent with what scientists say can be expected as global temperatures rise.

Sharlene Leurig

Today, I’m devoting the first of two blogposts to the insurance business and climate change. Have another cup of coffee if you must, but this is important. According to Leurig and a September 2011 report from Ceres, the insurance industry has yet to fully recognize the risks posed by climate change. This isn’t just their problem. It’s ours because what Ceres describes as he industry’s “sluggish and uneven response to the ever-increasing ripples from global climate change” threatens not just the insurance business but the stability of the global economy.

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A historic win for green investors

ceres_logoSometimes, history is made quietly.

For decades, shareholder activists have filed dozens, if not hundreds, of resolutions with public companies asking them to improve their environmental policies and practices. Not one passed—until this year.

The breakthrough vote came in May at IdaCorp.,  a $988-million a year utility company and independent power producer based in Boise, Idaho. Despite the usual opposition from management, the owners of 51.2 percent of IdaCorp.’s shares voted to ask the company to adopt greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Hardly anyone noticed at the time because, well, it was Idaho and not even the shareholder activists expected a victory. “I expected a vote of about 25%,” said Michael Passoff of As You Sow, a nonprofit group that organized the investor vote.

Since then, the company responded. Legally, it didn’t have to act because, as you may know, most shareholder votes are “precatory,” a fancy legal term meaning that management can ignore even a majority of the company’s owners. In any event, IdaCorp. agreed to adopt goals for curbing the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, issued its first request for a proposal for a wind farm and submitted a “smart grid” proposal, hoping to tap into the federal government’s stimulus money to upgrade the grid. [click to continue...]

The World Bank’s coal problem

So much is going on in the world of business and sustainability that no one can keep up with it all. I’ve decided, as a result, to occasionally feature guest posts  from smart people who follow topics I don’t. Today’s post comes from Mindy Lubber of Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors and environmental groups that works to integrate sustainability into capital markets. Mindy has spoken at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, and she’s one of those people who moves easily between the world of advocacy and the realities of corporate America. Her topic today is the folly of financing new coal plants in the developing world.

ceres_logo_color_bigIn Washington, it’s a popular climate conundrum everyone talks about: Even if the U.S. lowers its greenhouse gas emissions, China and India are on track to dwarf the entire Western World’s as they build enormous coal-fired power plants. Politicians regularly say we must get China and India to use less coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, to power their emerging economies.

But who do you think is financing all these new coal plants in the developing world?

Try the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international public financial institutions supported by the world’s wealthiest nations.
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Brainstorm Green 2009

Not long ago, Big Business and environmental activists were sworn enemies. No more. Today, companies and NGOs come together to work creatively around a variety of issues—from climate change to recycling to protecting the Amazon, from cleaning up dirty businesses like gold mining and to “greening” professional sports. One place they literally come together is at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment, which will be back on Earth Day, 2009.

Helping to create Brainstorm Green was a highlight of my 12 years at FORTUNE, and I’m pleased that I’ll be back this year, co-chairing the event with my colleague Brian Dumaine, FORTUNE’s global editor. The program for this year’s Brainstorm Green is still a work in progress, but a group of us got a draft agenda down on paper last week and I’m confident that it will again be a lively, exciting, information-packed event. The theme, once again, will be: How can business help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

We’ll discuss and debate climate change regulation, “clean coal,” nuclear power, electric cars, the smart grid, investing in green, renewable energy, sustainable consumption (if there is such a thing), carbon finance and too many other topics to list here.

What makes Brainstorm Green special is the diversity of the crowd. This year, we’ll again hear from many of America’s most important environmental leaders, including Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense, Glenn Prickett of Conservation International, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (who was there last year on behalf of Goldman Sachs), David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mindy Lubber of Ceres and Mike Brune of Rainforest Action Network. At least two dozen CEOs of big and medium-sized companies have agreed to speak, including Shai Agassi of Better Place (the electric car company), Ray Anderson of Interface, Carl Bass of Autodesk, David Crane of NRG Energy, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Fisk Johnson of S.C. Johnson, Donald Knauss of Clorox, Mike Morris of American Electric Power, Ralph Peterson of CH2M Hill, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Tom Werner of SunPower.

Other companies sending speakers include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Mars, Intel, Boeing, McKinsey, the private-equity firm KKR and architectural firm HOK. That list is sure to grow.

We’ll also be joined by speakers whose ideas are shaping the sustainability debate. I’m looking forward to spending time with Paul Hawken, whose books have shaped much of my own thinking about business and the environment. The dynamic Van Jones, who is profiled in the current issue of The New York by Betsy Kolbert,  will talk about green jobs. The always-inspiring Janine Benyus, who spoke last year, will be back to show us how biomimicry works in practice. My friend Joel Makower, the guru of green business and author of Strategies for the Green Economy, will return as well.

Venture capitalists from some of America’s top firms and entrepreneurs touting exciting startups will round out the group. We’re hoping to attract senior officials from the new Obama administration as well.

You can find a full list of speakers on the Brainstorm Green website. That’s also the best place to propose new speakers or to sign up for the event. (FORTUNE screens all participants.) We’ll meet in a beautiful setting—the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of you blogreaders there.