In the court of public opinion, optics matter. And when the world's most visible company publicly recognizes its role in addressing climate change, people notice.
Can leadership from popular brands alter how we think about climate change?
By all accounts, Apple CEO Tim Cook was visibly unnerved during the company's annual shareholder meeting in February when he was pressed by a representative of the National Center for Policy Research -- an organization closely aligned with climate deniers -- to justify costs associated with the company's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
"If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons," Cook bristled, "you should get out of this stock."
He went on to say that many of Apple's activities went beyond profit motive with an intent to "leave the world better than we found it."
Wait. Really? But doesn't this line of reasoning fly directly in the face of 40-plus years of logic from Milton Friedman asserting that the only "social responsibility of business is to increase its profits"? Could it be that profits aren't churned out in a vacuum devoid of social and environmental consequences?
In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "Times, they are a-changin."
These days, it is the company that fails to guard itself against climate change risk that is destined to find itself on the losing end of market share. For a multi-national company like Apple, risk associated with climate change comes in many forms, including: operational risk (extreme weather disrupting supply and distribution channels); regulatory risk (governments imposing a price on carbon); and reputational risk (educated consumers who believe companies need to address climate change).
If Cook's comments at the annual shareholders meeting aren't enough to convince people that climate change is a bona fide risk to the world's largest companies, perhaps the latest news that 140-plus California companies (including Apple, eBay, Gap, and Intel) have just joined 750 other companies (including Nike, Levi's, GM, L'Oreal, and Microsoft) in supporting the Climate Declaration initiated by Ceres in Boston.
In a winter that has been particularly brutal for anyone east of California, it's not surprising that fair and balanced news networks like Fox would lunge at the opportunity to call into question the merits of climate science. Nor is it surprising that anyone with a vested interest in oil and gas (see Koch Brothers) would spend millions seeding doubt in the American mind on the issue.
When boiled down to its essence, climate change is a matter of physics: the more greenhouse gas we emit into the atmosphere, the less stable our climate system becomes and the more extreme weather we can expect. In the U.S., however, climate change has become a culture war centered around politics and misrepresented by anyone who sees it as a matter of "Us vs. Them" as opposed to "Us vs. Ourselves." While other parts of the world are far down the road toward devising solutions, we in the States have been dragged into a zero-sum debate on semantics and ideology.
At a time when the revered have become as distrusted as the scientists who have spent their entire careers analyzing climate data, what's needed now is for is for a different type of leader to come forward and put the debate on climate change to rest (and please, this time a less politically polarizing figure than Al Gore).
Surely, people would doubt their sincerity if the role of climate messenger fell to big business and their CEOs. BP almost had us fooled with Beyond Petroleum until they spilled millions of gallons of crude in the Gulf of Mexico, just as any retiree who lost their life savings during the financial crisis is bound to have trust issues with any bank that was deemed "too big too fail."
But it absolutely couldn't hurt for Joe the Plumber or the average cold-hearted capitalist to hear that addressing climate change makes sound business sense. Perhaps all we really need to inspire people on climate change is for Tim Cook and other titans of industry to join together in a moment of Kumbaya leadership.
That would make for a brave new world indeed.