Making Sense of Climate Confusion... and How the Private Sector Can Help

Feb 13, 2014 9:00 AM ET

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post

Co-authored by Mike Bellamente, the director of Climate Counts, a consumer outreach organization that rates corporations on how well they measure, reduce and report their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

As individuals and families, we buy insurance for a lot of fairly unlikely things, like casualty insurance to cover the loss of a home in a severe storm, or automobile insurance to cover damage from car accidents. The odds that these things will actually happen vary depending on where you live or how you drive, but few actually expect these things to happen to them. After the release of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, we now know that our own actions have caused the climate to warm, and that its effects are virtually certain to disrupt the economics of our lives. While we can't really insure the planet, we can take steps to lessen the risk, yet our policymakers have taken to avoiding the issue altogether, making them at once irresponsible and inept. Shocking.

But why is it that climate change has become such a third rail in Congress and beyond? How can it be that a nearly 200-year-old concept like the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect can remain both the basis of vitriolic public debate, as well as the source of deafening silence in Congress?

While logic suggests that we should be moving toward consensus on the role humans are playing on climate, the findings of authorities on the subject -- like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- are assailed before they're even published, often by conservative outlets like the Daily Mail and Fox News. Shackled to ideology and ratings, it is this type of lazy journalism, quick to cherry-pick and distort scientific findings, that fuels public distrust of scientists.

Distrust of science goes back centuries and it is not all bad; science progresses by endless testing of perceived truths to get at real truths. If everyone trusted the word of scientists all the time we might all still believe the earth was flat. But spending money to make people distrust science when (1) the consequences of disbelief are enormous, and (2) it's only for political gain and not the pursuit of knowledge, is both dangerous and foolish.

Yet, there is still a great deal of money being injected into disinformation and political lobbying aimed at discrediting climate science. So influential is the jury tampering of the American mind that only a minority of Americans believe climate change is caused by humans. Four out of 10 may not sound too bad, unless you consider that, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 97 percent of the people who actually spend their careers researching and analyzing this phenomenon, the climate scientists, are firm believers, vs. only 41 percent of the American public. It's also worth considering that a lot of the money spent making the argument that the climate either isn't changing, or that people aren't responsible even if it is, have their own dogs in the fight -- they stand to lose a lot of money if policymakers acted as though climate change is real and could disrupt existing patterns of economic activity. If 97 percent of physicists agreed that black holes exist, and they turned out to be wrong, the consequences for the human race would likely be minimal. In this case, if the climate deniers convince enough policymakers that climate change is a myth (or at least a harmless fact) the consequences could be catastrophic. The precautionary principle applies, but policymakers aren't acting that way.

So where and how does this vicious cycle end? How can we have a reasonable debate about climate change when we live in such a fragmented media age where 10 out of 10 people rely on different outlets for their daily news intake?

Enter the private sector. Although in the wake of the financial crisis, Americans are still wary of big business, it is worth noting that trust in big business is actually almost double the level of trust in Congress. Is it possible that corporations could actually be our savior in breaking the idiocy of climate denial? Yes, it is.

With the latest release of CDP's S&P 500 climate report, the message from corporate America is clear: the uncertainty of climate change presents an unwelcome risk to business and is therefore being dealt with as any other risk or threat -- through investment of time and money. The price for being wrong on climate policy for a politician may be unpleasant, but the price of being wrong for a corporation may be disastrous. Corporations, in short, have less luxury to refashion truth to match their stripes than politicians do. That is probably why more than 700 companies have signed the Climate Declaration calling on Congress to enact climate and clean energy legislation. Signatories to this initiative, led by the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP), include Microsoft, Acer America, General Motors, Unilever, Levi Strauss, Nike, Intel, Swiss Re, Stonyfield, Gap, Mars, eBay and EMC, and hundreds of small businesses, who are often regarded as the fiercest opponents of any policy that could result in regulatory action.

Businesses sign up to initiatives like this because they understand that, whether they're major emitters or not, the impact of a changing climate could well affect them, and those effects can be quite painful. Following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, nearly half the top 100 companies in the S&P 500 reported in their annual reports that there had been impacts from those two dreadful hurricane seasons, and with a couple of exceptions all the reports were of damage to the businesses (though the businesses that did report increased sales due to the hurricanes were who you would predict: those selling home improvement goods and services). It is noteworthy that several of the businesses signing on to the Climate Declaration are ski resorts, whose businesses have in many cases already been hurt by warmer winters and changing patterns of precipitation.

One can argue that it's easy to sign up to anything hortatory, and quite another to support actual legislation or proposed regulation. True enough. But try to remember the last time 700 businesses signed on to any plea for increased government action, and you'll understand our point. Climate change is happening whether you believe it or not, and no amount of spin-doctoring by deniers or political bluster will change that. Corporations are in it for the long haul, and if they're in the path of the onrushing train, it is only sensible to try to do something about it. The more corporations step up to the plate, the more likely it is that our policymakers will wake up from their climate coma and take the actions needed to help avoid catastrophic consequences.