Even the Pope Is Talking Climate, So Where Are American Businesses?

06/24/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

The best way to understand the growing climate crisis is to look at who's getting worried. It's not the usual suspects. The, uh, Pope, for example. Other dire warnings no longer come from environmentalists, but from staid organizations nobody could describe as radical. The audit and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, now says that on a business-as-usual emissions path, the planet will warm 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100, which would be catastrophic. The International Energy Agency made the exact same warning. So did the World Bank.

These firms are respected business advisors, and so it's fair to assume business understands that climate change is a huge problem--indeed, it's likely the biggest threat to commerce in the next century. What's odd, then, is that in the U.S. at least, corporate leadership has been mostly silent on the issue.

At best, firms concerned about climate sign-on to group statements, or send staff to Washington to lobby. This is important but insufficient, not nearly as powerful as real noise: an op-ed, a public statement, or even a tweet from a CEO demanding action. Such statements, however, are not forthcoming.

Coke, for example, is genuinely worried about what its business model looks like in a hotter world where its key ingredient, water, is in increasingly short supply. (California, anyone?) That's why their sustainability program is built around water. But even though CEO Muhtar Kent made forceful comments about the need for climate action at the Cancun climate conference in 2010, those comments didn't make it back to the U.S.

Instead of speaking out, the vast bulk of corporations merely respond to a warming world by cutting their own carbon footprints. Even Apple's Tim Cook, who hired ex-EPA chief and climate hawk Lisa Jackson as a Vice-President, speaks about climate change solutions in operational, not policy, terms.

That's unfortunate, because changing light bulbs and replacing boilers, even installing big solar arrays or wind farms, as Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Pepsi have done, may be good business decisions, but they don't stop climate change, which is a global problem and therefore requires policy solutions. Even worse, much of the operational greening undertaken by leading companies in the U.S. amounts to meaningless purchases of "clean power" through dubious transactions that merely push ownership of power assets around on paper while doing nothing to cut emissions. Intel's main claim to eco-fame, for example, is that it "is now the single largest purchaser of renewable energy certificates (RECs) in the U.S." Sadly, academic studies show these purchases do nothing. And yet Intel, of all businesses, ought to really care about solving climate change, not just pretending to. It uses huge amounts of water in chip fabrication factories often located in deserts (Arizona and New Mexico, for example) that scientists say will only get hotter and drier in years to come. (Those two states are already in persistent drought.)

High-level business voices would make a difference. Wal-Mart's comments on marriage equality had seismic impact on the public dialog. On the other side of the climate fight, business influence is also evident: the voice of the fossil fuel industry in Washington (along with their dollars) is extraordinarily powerful, and is why there has been no climate legislation in the United States.

Meanwhile, European business leaders are already taking a stand. Recently, the World Economic Forum released an open letter from 43 global CEOs to world leaders urging concrete climate action. But American policy is most important, because as the world's second largest emitter, U.S. leadership is required to bring China and India along on any deal to come in Paris next December. So what gives? Why aren't senior leaders at U.S. businesses using their power to drive real change?

It's easy to speculate: taking a stand may be too controversial. Business sees its role as making money, not advocacy. Corporations don't want to irritate legislators whose decisions can directly impact revenue. But these are all false fears: solving climate change isn't all that controversial anymore, and fixing the problem is directly tied to future corporate profits. The baffling truth is there really isn't any good reason non-fossil-fuel based corporations aren't screaming from the rooftops on the need for aggressive climate action, since the cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of the fix.

As has been the case many times in human history, leaders fail to lead because a given issue just isn't top of mind. So we head toward 4 degrees, not with a bang or a whimper, but with no sound at all.