When the rich and powerful gathered for their annual meeting at Davos in January, at the World Economic Forum, climate change was on their collective minds. Signs reading Make Green Pay served as a backdrop for the usual panels, featuring CEOs and high-end pundits holding forth on global finance and the terrorist threat. And, participants say, global warming was the number-one topic amid the shmoozing, where the real business of the retreat is conducted.
There’s some good news here. Given the risk that a climate catastrophe could hit soon and suddenly, we’ve got to make some dramatic changes very quickly. What CEOs and portfolio managers think and do is an urgent question; we may not have time for mass movements to develop and force elites to do the right thing. They’ve got to get started now, or all could be doomed.
But you’ve got to wonder how serious they are about doing something. Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times, said at Davos that there’s no evidence that CEOs and Cabinet ministers were about to make “tough decisions” to avert catastrophe.
Had I been invited to Davos, I could have earned an I Am Offset pin by paying a mere $93 to “offset” a New York to Zurich round-trip flight–a journey that produces more than six tons of carbon emissions. About 60 percent of attendees performed this act of penance, though as A.C. Thompson and Duane Moles show in this issue, carbon offsets are a pretty dubious business. The more serious question–is Davos-style jet-setting sustainable?–wasn’t likely to come up when consciences were assuaged by the offsets.
But maybe this is too negative. Let’s savor the spreading climate consciousness among the corporate elite. Amazingly, the CEOs of the Big Three US auto companies and Toyota appeared before a Congressional committee in mid-March to endorse limits on carbon emissions–and they failed to rise to the bait when a Republican panel member, Joe Barton, characterized the human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions as “trivial.” Even ExxonMobil, the most recalcitrant of the oil companies, has a statement of concern on its website. When the auto and oil industries feel they have to talk the climate change talk, then something is happening.
A milestone in the evolution of elite opinion was last October’s publication by the British government of the Stern Review, an overview of the economics of climate change, named after former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern. While many have (rightly) criticized the review for its excessive caution, its political contribution shouldn’t be underestimated: It promoted the idea in elite discourse that there would be substantial economic costs to doing nothing about climate change. As Stern showed, it’s not good for the GDP when crops fail, storms intensify, pandemics spread and coastal cities flood.
Another milestone was the creation in January of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). Among the players are such noted friends of the earth as GE, DuPont, PG&E, Caterpillar and BP (which tries to be the greenest of the oil companies but is still an oil company, and one with a terrible worker-safety record at that). Joining those firms are some of the most business-friendly environmental organizations, like Environmental Defense (ED) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). While USCAP’s manifesto calls for relatively modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and seems in no hurry to get there, it is remarkable to see such blue-chip corporate names signing on to any kind of green program, even if it is a rather pale shade of green.