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Brian Flaherty: Business climate change

BY BRIAN FLAHERTY

Published November 15, 2009

If you walked through the Diag on Wednesday afternoon, you might have seen an odd collection of movers and shakers. In attendance were a famous climate change expert previously featured on the Colbert Report, Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje, environmental activists clad in green hard hats and a guitarist singing his environmental affections over some beefy riffs. The scene was organized with the support of 350.org, an international grassroots environmental-action organization focused on what is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our generation — to sustain the environment by keeping carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million.

There are three important things about the number 350. The first is that peer-reviewed science says a planet with more than 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in its atmosphere isn’t compatible with the environment that allowed life on Earth to evolve. To cross that line for any extended period of time will almost certainly pose a serious threat to the survival and livelihoods of organisms across the planet, including people. The second thing to know is we’ve already passed that: CO2 levels are roughly 390 ppm. Third, getting back to 350 ppm is going to be a tremendous challenge that will require dramatic economic changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A lot of people count on the federal government to confront the climate change challenge. But we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for the sort of swift, decisive public policy decisions that climate change demands. Experts are pretty confident that even the watered-down cap-and-trade bill now being considered by Congress won’t pass this year (and it’s already years overdue). The sad political reality — and one that may not change for quite some time — is that there aren’t enough votes on Capitol Hill to get strong greenhouse gas legislation onto the president’s desk. Any action the federal government takes is likely to be too little, too late. And any action state governments take is, for the most part, limited only to individual states.

Luckily, this doesn’t mean our planet is doomed, because strong federal action isn’t the only route back to 350. Private-sector solutions and ordinary people could also get us there. In fact, they’re already outpacing the federal government.

Nonprofit organizations are one of the focal points in this trend. Grassroots organizations like 350.org, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have made headway by successfully promoting both conservation and awareness about the environmental impacts of individual and group decisions. And other nonprofits are taking fresh, effective and less obvious approaches to environmental problems. For instance, the environmental think tank World Resources Institute is partnering with business powerhouses like Goldman Sachs to funnel investments into green companies and turn clean technologies into profitable opportunities.

Meanwhile, clean technology companies are pushing the envelope by advancing earth-friendly technologies and bringing them to the market. Solar panels that were prohibitively expensive a decade ago have become increasingly cost-effective as technology has advanced, and solar panel sales have grown by more than 50 percent annually in recent years. In a similar vein, newborn “smart grid” companies are using IT and new devices to help electricity producers generate and distribute electricity more efficiently, reducing their usage of dirty fossil fuels. As technologies like these become cheaper and more efficient, they’re likely to replace fossil fuels, with or without a government mandate.

Of course, reaching 350 requires changes from most businesses, not just clean tech companies. Big companies produce high greenhouse emissions in everything from generating electricity to making chemicals to producing consumer goods. But there’s a silver lining here, too. “Sustainability” has become a common and oft-repeated buzzword in leading firms and business schools, and smart companies are cutting their carbon emissions and marketing themselves as green companies. Google, for instance, recently set a goal to go carbon neutral.

Consumer intervention can serve as a substitute for government mandates, as conscious consumers use their purchasing decisions to support green companies and apply pressure to firms that waste and pollute. New websites, like carrotmob.org, are emerging to help environmentally conscious consumers organize boycotts of firms that aren’t being friendly to Mother Earth. And companies that sell environmentally damaging products may take a hit as competitors' products are marketed and sold as greener alternatives.

Global climate change screams for government action, but until that happens, students, people and private organizations can’t afford to wait. The 350 goal is daunting, critically important and will require a revolution in the ways people consume and produce. And students at the heart of cutting-edge environmental research, and who are just beginning careers in new industries, are likely to play a key role in getting the planet back to where it should be.

Brian Flaherty is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at bfla@umich.edu.