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Talking about Climate Change, Even if Politicians Aren't

09/12/2012 11:35 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2012
  • Judith Samuelson Executive Director, Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program

Given the once-every-four-years line up of the Olympics and the political conventions, it's no surprise that my TV consumption has sky-rocketed of late. So it's a good thing that I closed out the summer with a cross-country plane trip, and a chance to catch up on my magazine reading. My seatmate commented on my unusual pairing of Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone. Even with such heady fare, it was hard to concentrate; the rolling landscape of endless ocean, desert, mountains and plains always knocks me out.

But so did Bill McKibben's article in the August issue of Rolling Stone, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." It tells in a plain-spoken narrative, just how bad things really are--in both environmental and political terms. The summer of unseasonal heat, floods, drought and brush fires came back to me as the landscape sped by 30,000 feet below. So did the lack of discussion at both the Republican and Democratic political conventions. A human problem of dire consequences--and virtually no one talking about it.

Climate change is as terrifying as it is perplexing. The issue is not easily reduced to sound bites, which is perhaps why neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney spent much time on the environment during their convention speeches. We know what we need to do, but we are unable to act.

Yet our lack of political will is no longer about red states and blue states and "confused science," although that quirky debate still captures the media. Somewhere around two-thirds of Americans state they are in favor of measures to bring down carbon emissions 90 percent by 2050. These measures are necessary if we are going to help lead a global consensus and avoid unspeakable forecasts--like entire island nations going underwater, massive drought and dislocations to food production, and much more of the extreme weather patterns witnessed this summer across the country, from the Colorado fires to the Louisiana floods.

Even Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon and poster child for what McKibben terms the "reckless" behavior of the fossil fuel industry, will now say publicly that global warming is real. But before we start to draft up legislation, it is important to know that he also, reportedly, dismissed it as an "engineering problem" that has "engineering solutions" such as "moving crop production around." Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry-supported groups are doing their best to make sure that we fail to act.

One of the things that I find most appealing about McKibben's article is the clarity of the solution. He makes two points, really--what won't work, and what will work. Relying on consumers (like me) to fix the problem by buying the right light bulbs and giving up on air travel is DOA. The solution lies at the source; we need to tax emissions, like we do other pollutants, distribute proceeds to make the costs to the public more palatable, and let the market work to both change behavior and ratchet up new forms of investment, as Germany has done. McKibben calls it a fee and dividend solution.

To get to a political solution will require a brand of leadership from business that is currently MIA. Better to look to pensions and other investors, who once proved their power by forcing companies to disinvest in apartheid, and could do it again.

McKibben is making the rounds on college campuses this fall engaging a group that is only too willing to discuss climate change--young adults who will be living on this planet of extreme weather and paying the price for the silence of their elders.

His divestment message is resonating with students, who are pressuring their boards to get out of any investments in fossil fuels. As he puts it in his most recent book, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet:

"The link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college's endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won't have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree."

(The same logic applies to the world's largest investors, pension funds, which, theoretically, are interested in the future--when their members will "enjoy their retirement.")

Of course, when making the case for divestment, it always helps to have some persuasive financial arguments to go along with the moral ones. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, which aims to improve the transparency of the carbon embedded in equity markets, is collecting sobering data on "stranded assets."

While Exxon, Shell and the rest of the industry continue to pour billions into gas and oil exploration, it is becoming clear that the planet cannot sustain the use of the assets already on the books, which would mean that the value of some fossil fuel companies is greatly overstated. When will this economic reality hit investors? It's not clear; what IS evident is the need to hold energy companies accountable for their impact on the planet, and the need for real market pricing and incentives.