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.

Bankers, behaving badly, backing coal

india-coal-power-007The  big Wall Street banks say all the right thing about sustainability and corporate responsibility but investment bankers are, above all, driven by the deal. Turning away business is just not part of their skill set, or mind set.

That’s the best explanation that I can come up with for the fact that Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, along with three India-based banks, are managing a share offering for Coal India, a company with an environmental and human rights record that is, at best, spotty.

Their decision to do so is the topic of my story today at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re an investor seeking to profit from the coal industry and you’re indifferent to the issues of climate change, forest destruction and human rights, Bank of AmericaGoldman SachsCredit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have a deal for you.

The four US and European banks, along with Indian investment banksSBI Capital MarketsJM Financial and Kotak Mahindra Capital Co., are managing a share offering in Coal India, one of the world’s biggest coal-mining companies.

They’re doing so despite Coal India’s dismal environmental record, despite the climate impacts of burning coal, despite allegations that the state-owned firm has run roughshod over tribal communities and despite objections by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as by Indian environmentalists.

They’re also doing so despite their own rhetoric about sustainability and corporate responsibility.

I hope you take the time to read the story. It’s tough, I think, but it’s a reflection of the difficulty that the corporate-responsibility and environmental movements have had gaining traction on Wall Street. Most of the big financial institutions have made “green” commitments, and that’s great, but if they continue to finance fossil fuels on a grand scale, they could wind up doing more harm than good.

None of the banks would talk to me on the record for the story, and I imagine that if they did, they would say, correctly, that burning fossil fuels is perfectly legal in India, and everywhere else, as is dumping emissions into the atmosphere at no cost. That’s a political problem, and not a Wall Street problem, they could argue. True enough. But if the banks believe what they say about climate change and the environment, they should then make their voices heard more forcefully in the climate debate in Washington and elsewhere.

Until they do, their rhetoric about sustainability will remain hollow.

What Ben Franklin can teach US companies about climate

Benjamin-Franklin-006Given the inability, or unwillingness, of political and business leaders to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s no surprise that governments and companies are increasingly talking about adaptation or resilience. It’s only prudent. We need to prepare for climate disruption.

But it seems strange that businesses would tackle the question of adaptatation without, simultaneously, doing all they can to push for climate regulation. At least, that was my reaction last month when I attended a Washington event on adaptation organized by the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). Everyone acted as if extreme weather and a warming planet were all but inevitable.

And perhaps they are. But as companies, understandably, prepare for a warming world, it’s incumbent upon them to engage politically in any way they can to slow down emissions. That’s the topic of my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business. [click to continue...]

What Warren Buffett could learn from Bill Gates

Buffett and GatesBill Gates and Warren Buffett have been billionaire buddies for decades. There’s a lot to admire about both men. They have promised to give away most of their vast fortunes and, even better, created The Giving Pledge to persuade many of the world’s richest people to do the same.

But on the issue of climate change, Gates has been a leader and Buffett a laggard. That’s the topic of my column this week for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Last week, Bill Gates wrote an essay for LinkedIn called Three Things I’ve Learned from Warren Buffett.

Gates and Buffett have been friends for decades. They play contract bridge together, they travel together and together they launched theGiving Pledge, an estimable campaign that has persuaded dozens of billionaires to commit half their wealth to good causes. Buffett sits on the board of the Gates Foundation; Gates is a director of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s holding company.

In the essay, Gates wrote that he is “very lucky” to be able to ask the 82-year-old Buffett for advice on a regular basis. One of the lessons he cited is: use your platform. That got me thinking that Gates has an important lesson of his own to teach to Buffett: that climate change matters.

The story goes on to describe how Gates invited some of the world’s leading climate scientists and economists to teach him about the issue, how he has spoken out in Washington and elsewhere about climate change and clean energy, and how he has invested his own money in energy and climate research, as well as a nuclear power startup and an algae company. Gates has also taken an interest in geoengineering research, which I wrote about in my e-book, Suck it up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis.

Buffett’s track record is mixed. Berkshire Hathaway’s utility company, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, has invested in solar and wind power, but Berkshire’s BNSF Railway has lobbied on behalf of the coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest and on behalf of the coal industry in Washington. BNSF is also trying to build a coal-carrying railroad in eastern Montana, a story I reported on for Sierra Magazine, under the headline, Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem.

As a director of Berkshire Hathaway, isn’t it time for Bill Gates to have a talk with his friend Warren Buffett about climate? Imagine the difference that Buffett could make if he spoke out on the issue.

Warren Buffett’s coal problem

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

Last winter, I traveled to southeastern Montana (brr!) to report on a battle over a coal mine being proposed by Arch Coal, America’s second-biggest coal company, and a coal-carrying railroad that’s needed to transport the coal from the mine to coal-burning power plants, either in the U.S. or in Asia. The railroad, called the Tongue River Railroad, is owned by Arch Coal, by the BNSF Railway, which is a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and by the candy billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

It’s a fascinating story, for a bunch of reasons. The coal mine and the railroad are interdependent; both will be built, or neither will be. They need the approval of state and federal regulators. And opposing them are an unlikely coalition of Montana cattle ranchers, members of the northern Cheyenne tribe, a small Amish farming community that recently moved to to the state in search of peace and quiet, and some very determined environmental activists from the Northern Plains Resource Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club.

My story was as just published in the May/June issue of by Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, under the headline, Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem. Like the Sierra Club, I think this coal mine is a bad idea–a very bad idea–and that’s one reason why I wanted  to write the story. [click to continue...]

Hurricane Sandy: A climate Pearl Harbor?

Only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor did the US mobilize to enter World War II.

Might Hurricane Sandy mobilize the US to tackle global warming?

This isn’t my metaphor. People have been talking about “climate Pearl Harbors” for years. (Here’s a Joe Romm post from 2008.) The theory is that, because global warming is a slow-moving threat  that for a variety of peculiar reasons is incredibly difficult to resolve politically — for more on that, read my climate ebook, Suck It Up — a dramatic event, involving death and destruction, will be required to awaken a citizenry that is largely indifferent, confused or otherwise occupied.

Of course we’ve had plenty of extreme weather in recent years. Hurricane Katrina. A Russian heat wave that killed 700 in 2010. Floods in Australia in 2011. Disasters in places like Pakistan and Mali that barely made headlines.

But those involved black people, poor people, faraway people or, in the case of the wildfires and droughts that plagued the US this year, trees and crops.

Hurricane Sandy is affecting New Yorkers. New York, along with Washington, is the power center of the US. Wall Street. The news business. Media, fashion, advertising, PR. [click to continue...]

Thoughts on being power-less

No one pays much attention to electricity.

Until we’re forced to go without it.

I’ve not blogged for a while because I’ve been intermittently without electricity–first, by design, for a couple of days last week, when I took a rafting and camping trip off the grid in northern California, and then after I returned home to Bethesda, where a summer storm that killed 22 people also left more than 1.8 million people without electricity in the mid-Atlantic states.

Being power-less does interesting things to people.

Before leaving on the rafting trip, I confess, I was uneasy about doing without a cell phone, Internet access, email, Twitter and baseball scores, not necessarily in that order. I try to turn off my computer on Saturdays, to observe the Jewish sabbath, but I rarely succeed. Even when traveling overseas, I try to check in at least once a day. On an ordinary day, I rarely go more than an hour without checking email. This is an addiction, plain and simple.

Once I got out on the middle fork of the American River, none of that mattered. (Well, I did think about my beloved Washington Nationals now and then.) I was traveling with a group of fun and interesting people, assembled by Jib Ellison of the BluSkye sustainability consulting firm. The rafting was enormous fun. I camped for the first time in more than 30 years. (The technology of tents has improved nicely since then.) We ate well, and marveled at the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.

Being off the grid was liberating–and restorative.

As it happened, we talked some about electricity. This was a group of sustainability people, after all. David Crane, the ceo of NRG Energy, talked about how he’d like to see solar panel on the roofs of half of the homers in America, roughly 50 million in all, but lamented the fact that most people aren’t aware that the cost of solar has fallen dramatically, that you can lease panels rather than buy them and avoid the high upfront costs, and that in some states the owners of solar-powered homes can sell electricity back to the grid. Most people, we agreed, just turn on their TV or plug in their laptop without thinking about how they are powered.

That wasn’t the case, of course, after a powerful storm struck Washington, D.C., and its suburbs on Friday. Many people took the inconvenience in stride, especially those of us, like my wife and I, who were fortunate enough to be able to check into a hotel for a couple of nights. But others griped incessantly about Pepco, the local power company, and a few treated the power outage as a hardship, which, to be fair, it can for older people or small children which suffer from the heat.

Hundreds of people flocked to malls and coffee shops to feed their Internet habit, sometimes squabbling over outlets.

 

That there might be a connection (no pun intended) between their electricity usage and the extreme weather — particularly the sweltering heat that has enveloped the DC area — probably did not occur to many. Burning coal, which generates more than 40% of the electricity in the US, is the biggest single contributor to climate change.

In a very real sense, the storms that cause us to lose electricity are caused, in part, by the fact that we use electricity that’s produced by burning fossil fuels.

To be sure, it’s not possible to link any particular weather event to global warming. But according to the National Climatic Data Center, more than 16,300 daily high temperature records were broken through June this year in the U.S. Whew! For more on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather, check out this update on Heat Waves and Climate Change from a nonprofit group called Climate Communication.

Don’t blame Pepco, folks; blame us.

Being without power is, of course, a more than an inconvenience for many. It’s a way of life. An estimated 1.3 billion people, or about 20 percent of the world’s population, live without regular access to an on-off switch of any kind, according to the International Energy Agency. About 85% of people in rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have no electricity in their homes.

Their kids can’t study at night. And they can’t plug in at a neighborhood Starbucks.

Maybe instead of whining when we’re powerless, we should try to be grateful that we live in a country where the electricity is nearly always on. Be even more grateful when we have an opportunity to unplug. And give some thought to installing  solar panels on the roof.

Suck It Up: My book about climate change, geoengineering and air capture of CO2

I’m pleased to let you know that my book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, is being published today as an Amazon Kindle Single. Please buy the ebook here for just $1.99.

The book reflects two years of reporting and my best thinking about three topics that matter: climate change, geoengineering and a technology called direct air capture of CO2. It explains why we’ve made so little progress (none, actually) in dealing with the climate threat, and how that might change. Part of the answer is to look for ways to recycle and reuse CO2.

I’m going to print the introduction to the book below, but first a word about the publishing process. As the newspapers, magazines and book publishers that traditionally support long-form journalism are struggling, exciting new outlets like blogs and ebooks are opening up. I’m the publisher as well as the author of Suck It Up, with a big assist from Amazon, which has selected the book as a Kindle Single.

The Kindle Single allows writers to tell stories that are longer than a magazine article and shorter than a book. Suck It Up is about 17,000 words long, the equivalent of 60 to 70 double spaced typewritten pages. It’s intended to be read in one or two sittings, and it’s priced so the ideas in it will spread. If you don’t own a Kindle, you can read the book on your smart phone, iPad or laptop. Just download the free Kindle software here.

I’d like to sell lots of copies of Suck It Up not just because I think it’s a good read about an important topic, but because I want to make the ebook business model work. It’s an exciting new platform for in-depth reporting.

So, please read the intro, check out the book and if you like it, help me spread the word through social media or the old-fashioned way–tell a friend about the book. [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...]

Rick Perry, lyin’ and denyin’

How can Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry talk so irresponsibly about global warming–and get away with it?

Have we really reached a point where, in order to appeal to the hard core of the Republican Party, candidates have to ignore the fact that the earth is getting warmer, and that human activities are responsible?

Let’s hope not. Because if true, that’s sad and worrisome. Without Republican backing, no serious effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions can be enacted by the U.S. Congress.

To be sure, Democrats aren’t much better when it comes to straight political talk. Just ask Barack Obama, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi how they plan to close the federal deficit. But they are at least operating in a universe that resembles the one in which we live.

Not so Perry, who describes evolution as “a theory that is out there,” who rails against an “idiotic” federal regulation of tractors that does not exist, and who would have us believe that climate crisis is being drummed up by scientists who fudge their data to keep research grants rolling it. [click to continue...]