ome years back, I attended a lunch in Brussels with several European Parliamentarians to discuss climate change. As the sole American on hand, it fell upon me to explain the mindset in Washington – specifically, why there was so little federal action on the issue. After stating that, in principle, I was as baffled as they were, I added that if they wanted to see real action on climate change and sustainability, they needed to visit the cities and states in America. “They get it”, I said.
Fast forward to today. Even now, especially from the legislative standpoint, politicians in Washington continue to misinterpret sustainability challenges and have completely missed the boat on the business, workforce, and investment implications. But despite the ideology-driven rhetoric on Capitol Hill, changes are afoot.
The business world, like local government, is embracing more and more the evolution of its societal role. Like mayors, business people are a practical bunch. They don’t have time for ideology; they’re too busy trying to compete and build businesses. For mayors and managers, risk management, resilience, and getting results is the name of the game.
Many high-profile business people are telling anti-environmentalists to go away. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently told anti-environment shareholders to get out of the stock. Richard Branson likewise told climate skeptics to get out the way. Insurance companies for their part have been eying climate risk for a long time now. With the latest reports on weather-related costs rolling in, their eyes are likely to grow wider. Climate deniers are increasingly seen as out of touch, even silly. They simply aren’t being taken seriously by practical, results-driven people.
And it’s not just the words flying. Tesla’s ongoing battles with New Jersey, Arizona, and Texas over the company’s direct sales business model is an illustration of a much larger transition underway. The effort to ban Tesla’s sales model is a classic case of entrenched interests resisting change. Nothing new there – if we went back a hundred years, we would probably hear similar arguments from horse dealers as automobiles were coming on the market. But even small interest groups who stand to lose big can have a big impact in the legislative process. There’s one very important takeaway from the Tesla saga. When an industry needs to turn to the political process to compete, you know there’s something wrong with the business model.
A related political obstacle to building an advanced economy is that many citizens just don’t believe that sustainability is a worthy endeavor. This may be changing, but much of the American electorate still buys the notion that climate change is a hoax or is due to natural fluctuations. For this group, the debate, if one can still call it that, is no longer based on science or practical indicators. It’s become part of the culture wars. In this way, the anti-environmentalists have done their work well. It’s disheartening to think that, in order to make progress on these crucial issues, some segments of the population may simply need to be marginalized. In fact, some state political parties have even made opposition to critical thinking education a part of their platform, this at a time when STEM education is more needed than ever.
But reality bites. And the reality is, of course, that we ignore sustainability issues at our own peril. The earth itself doesn’t care how we manage our economies or our businesses. I recently finished reading “The Sixth Extinction” and was reminded of a sobering reality about the environment: it’s been evolving and surviving for billions of years. It will continue to do so long after we’ve dammed the last river, caught the last fish, and pumped the last barrel of oil. The earth will simply wait out the human race.
I always chuckle when I hear someone say that “saving the environment” in lieu of creating jobs isn’t possible. That humans must come first and sacrificing the environment is just part of the deal. Sure, we can do that. But we are opening ourselves up to a huge amount of risk. When the bill comes due, we won’t be concerned about the saving the environment. We’ll be too busy saving ourselves from the environment.
And therein lies the real problem with sticking with outdated business models. Sustainability is all about risk. Moving ahead with advanced, clean economic models is the ultimate act of enlightened self-interest. The potential for combining – “mashing up” in social media lingo – disciplines such as renewable energy, education, and economic development could take us to unparalleled levels of prosperity. Denying climate change and ignoring the value of natural capital just isn’t helpful. It’s time to move the climate denial “trolls” off the bridge and get to work on a brighter future.