NEW YORK -- An extraordinary opportunity to build the political will necessary to tackle big global challenges -- financial stability and climate change -- is being forged from three game-changing events: the Election, Hurricane Sandy and the Fiscal Cliff. This is the kind of breakthrough moment that future generations will study. I am optimistic, in part because the alternative of no action is too bleak to consider. And business leaders, like the ones meeting with Obama yesterday, will be instrumental in seizing the day. In fact, they may be the only ones who can.
The first challenge is the so-called fiscal cliff. An unusual coalition of more than 130 powerful business executives and others have seized the moment and agreed upon a centrist approach to the fiscal crisis called "Fix the Debt." It calls for both tax and entitlement reform, along the lines of the bi-partisan Simpson Bowles plan. The devil's in the details, but it's a promising start and the first sign of significant business leadership on an issue of public concern, divorced from the narrow self-interests that business trade groups are now known for.
The question is whether this broad-based business coalition can move from the campaign to fix the debt, to putting a price on carbon. Both issues are now business issues.
The first challenge, however politically complex, is a no-brainer for business types -- who can operate a business in uncertainty? The second is even more politically charged, and will require overcoming vast special interests. The trick is to move past the politics, and recognize the economic risks at play. This is where Hurricane Sandy comes in.
Climate change may not have been in evidence during the presidential debates, but it arrived in living rooms throughout America, and indeed the world, as last month's Superstorm bore down on the Northeast, taking lives, property and livelihoods in great numbers. Whether we need to do something about the problem of carbon is no longer debatable as the issue shifts from one of "science" to one of economics, and even security. Bloomberg BusinessWeek captured the new mood perfectly in its stark cover photo of a dark, and flooded street in lower Manhattan, with the headline: "IT'S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID."
Unlike Europe, in the U.S., the attitudes of business executives have always been key to unlocking complex problems that require a mix of private and public investment to move forward. Think of the business coalition that drove the Marshall Plan, or for that matter, the role of business, acting in both self-interest and in pursuit of societal interests, in building the railroads. Moving to new sources of energy that relieve dependence on carbon is that kind of an issue. We won't get there as long as business holds back its support or defers to the industries with assets to protect.
The need for business to get in front of climate change, NOW, is obvious. It's not just about "green jobs" anymore, -- it's about risk: economic risks, security risks, and therefore business risks.
The paltry number of business leaders willing to stand up and be counted on this issue has contributed to our tepid response. Organizations like the Chamber and The Business Roundtable have placed private interests before public interests, with predictable results. It's time for that to change.
The interesting thing about the Fix the Debt Coalition is the organic nature of the list, and the lack of a titular head. There are both known Republicans and Democrats. There are plenty of household names. The list has grown to the point of it being an embarrassment to NOT be part of it. The industrials are well represented, and so are the technology and finance sectors; companies such as Dow, Microsoft, and Bain Capital, strange corporate bedfellows, united in rare agreement. It has all the attributes of a successful campaign -- well financed, focused, and about the public interest.
We will need all that, and more, to price carbon, and unleash public and private investment at the level of scale necessary to lead the planet in game-changing change.