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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jul/Aug 2005 : Single Bottom Line Sustainability

Single Bottom Line Sustainability

The New White House—Now with Hot Air Bags and Climate Control

A significant change is under way in the global debate about climate change.

by Paul Gilding

While there is much legitimate concern about the lack of action by the Bush Administration and its allies like Australia on climate change, the frenzy of criticism on the issue may blind us to what is, in fact, a very significant shift under way in the global debate.

The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, under which a number of mainly non-Kyoto signatory countries have agreed to work together on climate change, is an important indicator that opponents of action on climate change sense that “No Kyoto” is no longer enough.

What the partnership itself will achieve is wide open to question, but its existence is a powerful shift in the debate nonetheless. It is a crack in the dyke, and once that dyke of inaction breaks, the flood of change could well be rapid. Unduly optimistic? I don’t think so. What I have seen this year are some important indicators of change that say to me that we are about to turn the corner on the climate change debate.

First, let’s put Kyoto in its place. In reducing the impacts of climate change—it being too late to stop them—Kyoto’s significance is symbolic, not practical. However, to the point of absurdity, Kyoto has become an almost religious test of whether one is a true believer or a heathen planet-killer. It is fast reaching fundamentalist proportions.

What it symbolizes does matter. The nations of the world need to work together to reduce CO2 emissions. Reductions of more than 50 percent are required and this is now widely accepted. In this context, Kyoto is
largely irrelevant. Its impact is marginal.

Let’s be clear on the symbolism, though. In this, the world’s environmental acid test, we have failed. In a quagmire of pursuing deluded self interest and ideological advantage, we have become bogged down in a game of blame and shame. As a result, the impacts are hitting us now through droughts, melting icecaps and coral reef loss, and will certainly get worse—with devastating economic and ecological consequences. We still won’t respond adequately until these consequences hit us even harder. Sad but true. It is what it is.

In recent months, however, a number of encouraging shifts have occurred.

For a start, key previous skeptics in government and business, including President Bush, have accepted the basic science—the climate is changing and people are causing it. Their language is qualified, but they have stopped hiding behind the false veil of scientific uncertainty. The G8 meeting at Gleneagles is a case in point.

Secondly, the debate has been nuked. Nuclear power is not going to save us from climate change, but the glow-in-the-dark brigade brings something deeper. For decades climate change has been characterized by environmentalists advocating action, big business opposing it, and governments arbitrating. We now have a very substantial, self-interested—and most importantly, influential and organized—business lobby that smells a growth opportunity in action on climate change.
Move over coal, nukes want to save the world.

Observe the big mining companies’ behavior. BHP Billiton saw a hedging strategy against climate change and bought WMC Resources Ltd., owner of the world’s largest uranium resource. Another uranium and coal miner, Rio Tinto, described climate change as a “deadly” threat to humans and “the most serious environmental issue facing the world.” Self interest is a wonderful thing when it works for you.

The third major development is that climate change has shifted into our collective consciousness as reality. The media now runs the story not as “whether or not,” but “how and when.” The fact that the two key issues on the agenda of the G8 were African poverty and climate change was a remarkable indication of how far we’ve come. In many countries, climate change as reality has become part of our daily lives and political debates.

The fourth and most substantial shift is that America has woken up. USA Today recently declared “The debate’s over—globe is warming”. Across America, there are other indications. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, said he assumed future limits on carbon. A national coalition of major churches declared “global warming is a universal moral challenge.” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (ironically, perhaps the real compassionate conservative) declared: “The debate is over. We know the science…Global warming threatens California’s water supply, public health, agriculture, coastlines and forests—our entire economy and way of life … The time for action is now.”

I’m still a realist. The opponents of action on climate change are still opponents of real action. They’ve lost the debate on the science, so they’ve moved to a debate on how we should respond. Yes, their goal may be further delay, but now that they’ve effectively conceded on the science, the debate becomes what to do rather than whether to act.
That is a very different debate.

We have a long way to go. But now we have a situation of competing frameworks for action: The Asia Pacific Partnership with 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions arguing for technology and voluntary action versus the Kyoto block arguing for international regulation and mandatory action. It’s a significant shift.

With the Iraq war costing him politically, President Bush doesn’t need a major conflict with big business and big religion, let alone big (Republican) states and big Europe. So the conversation in the White House might go like this: “Gee, we’ve got people saying we can protect ourselves from Islamic terrorists by better fuel and energy efficiency. What do you say we spin this climate thing around? How do we make doing nothing for 10 years and now changing our position look like a plan?”

I can hear the Bush press conference in early 2006: “As I always argued they would, the American people and our companies are responding to this challenge with innovation and passion. They see the opportunity to lead the world forward on this important environmental issue and they are doing so. Now we’re going to get behind them and give them the support they need with intelligent regulation to help our economy grow.”
Mmm. As my seven-year-old says, “Yeah, whatever.” Personally, I’ll take progress where I can get it.

Paul Gilding (paul.gild is the founder and CEO of Ecos Corporation, which provides strategic advice to corporations on how to create value through sustainability.

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