Business leaders who are concerned about climate change can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines, they need to make their voices heard
Earlier this week, the BBC News website gave us a snapshot of the future. Each of the top four articles - the UK government's nuclear deal, npower hiking energy prices, Australian wildfires bearing down on Sydney, and Tesco's admission over 60 per cent of its salad bags end up wasted - were directly and indirectly environmental stories. Squint and you could have mistaken it for the home page of BusinessGreen.
The environmental movement will have to get used to this media spotlight. Far from being confined to the niche that many experts predicted following the financial crash of 2008, green issues have never really slipped from the public, business and political consciousness - and now they are back with a vengeance. This should not come as a surprise, given so many of the meta-narratives for this century have environmental issues at their root. The EDF nuclear deal and the row over rising energy bills are driven by the urgent need for energy security and decarbonisation, not to mention the cost and public acceptance challenges these requirements present. Tesco's brave admission of the shocking levels of food waste it produces reminds us how dysfunctional the entire global agricultural system has become. Australia's wildfires are a terrifying example of the climate impacts scientists have been warning about for years.
Every week there are hundreds more stories like this emanating from the energy-climate-resource nexus that will shape our economy and our politics for decades to come, plus hundreds of optimistic stories detailing the inspiring technologies, business models, and campaigns that are seeking to overcome these challenges.
And yet, the rising levels of awareness that should result from accurate reporting of these immense challenges are being undercut by an increasingly desperate political and media counter attack against the very policies and technologies designed to address escalating economic and environmental risks. As individuals and businesses start to engage with the implications of the energy they use and the food they eat, or, in the case of Australia, face up to the worsening climate risks they face, siren voices become ever louder, arguing that peoples' eyes deceive them, there is nothing to worry about, and nothing that can be done.
The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh offered a neat distillation of this climate sceptic counter attack this week, declaring, as smoke billowed around Sydney, that if climate change meant wearing shirt sleeves in autumn "let's have more". It would have been funny if Kavanagh's insouciant, arrogant, complacent recklessness was not a tacit insult to everyone on the planet who is younger than him.
The point at which environmental concerns and clean tech solutions really start to break into the mainstream was always going to be the point at which the defence mounted by those constituencies that benefit most from the fossil fuel-reliant status quo would reach a peak of intensity. Hence the recent concerted attacks on any and all green policies and the deeply flawed insistence that climate change is categorically not something to worry about for at least the next few decades.
It would be nice to think that respected editors of serious publications would realise on their own that not everyone who kicks against scientific consensus is Galileo, sometimes it's just David Icke. But sadly the last iceberg will be drifting pass the North Pole before certain publications acknowledge that we are engaged in a dangerous experiment with the atmosphere.
These attacks will fail in the long term - the falling cost of clean energy, the global battle for resources, the reality of climate change impacts, all mean the global transition towards a more efficient and cleaner economy will continue. However, as the devastating recent analysis contained in Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee's new book The Burning Question shows, emissions are currently rising exponentially leaving us with very little time to engineer the necessary transition. The defence of the status quo - a defence that is willing to cherry pick data, defy rational arguments, fail to offer an alternative strategy for addressing climate risks, and u-turn on policies at the drop of a polling point - has the ability to slow the necessary economic transition enough to condemn us to decades of rolling environmental crises.
The key question for those green business leaders who are committed to this transition is how to break through the lines of defence erected by those who support the status quo and the immense and escalating environmental risks that go with it. It is a question that will become ever more important in the run up to the domestic debate over the UK's fourth carbon budget and the international debate over the UN's 2015 climate summit.
The reality is that business leaders who accept that climate change and related environmental challenges are a serious and growing threat to their prosperity simply have to get off the sidelines and make the case for action more forcefully.
BusinessGreen's new columnist, E3G chairman Tom Burke, has a nice line about how the business community is split into "climate makers" and "climate takers" - those fossil fuel and agri-business companies who are making the climate through greenhouse gas emissions and those who will have to take the hostile climate that results. Like any binary distinction it is overly simplistic. "Climate makers" will also have to take the climate change they are causing and, somewhat perversely, energy companies are among those who are most aware of the need for climate resilience measures. Meanwhile, "climate takers" use the energy and resources produced by the "climate makers" meaning they are also indirectly responsible for emissions. But the division has value given that for every "climate maker" who stands to benefit financially from the carbon economy there are hundreds of "climate takers" who are staring down the barrel of massive and costly climate disruption.
It is these "climate takers" who to date have been far too quiet in the environmental, economic and policy debates that are raging over our best response to escalating risks. Yes, they have committed to ambitious sustainability strategies, invested billions of dollars in clean technologies, signed up to various communiques making the case for a low carbon economy, lobbied governments on specific environmental policies, and in some cases embarked on the development of genuinely green business models. All of this is hugely admirable and should continue. But set against the scale of the risks they face and the strength of the defence of the status quo these steps are insufficient. Sometimes it feels as if green business leaders have never come across a problem that they don't think a concerted campaign of letter-writing will solve.
What is needed is a more ambitious, co-ordinated and vocal campaign from all the "climate takers" who privately admit that they are deeply concerned about environmental risks. Those companies leading the green transition need to invest far more effort in publicising the huge clean tech commitments they are making. They need to master the media game in the way the "climate makers" have and ensure their arguments are driving the headlines, not getting consigned to the letters pages in response to the latest flawed climate sceptic cover story. They need to call out the commentators and leave the trade associations that are acting against their interests by advocating inaction on climate change. They need to use their political capital and be willing to publicly and privately stand up to politicians who want to jeopardise their long term prospects by undermining climate action.
There is a rump of highly influential companies that are moving in this direction. The insurance industry, institutional investors, almost the entire IT industry, and the retail and food giants are all deeply concerned about climate impacts and are willing to say so. But the volume and intensity of their arguments are struggling to match those presented by the defenders of the status quo, particularly when it comes to the whipping up of a confected media frenzy, as we are seeing with the current row over "green levies". Too often green businesses are left on the back foot, belatedly responding to attacks rather than proactively making the case for a better economy. Too often their concerns over climate risks or green policy changes go unheeded and their achievements in developing and installing clean technologies go unreported, all because they are failing to invest the same level of talent and money in communicating their position as the supporters of the status quo invest in blocking action.
I've often thought that one of the reasons the public fails to respond more to climate change warnings is that we are all victim of the comforting assumption that if something was that serious someone would be doing something about it. They hear scientists, politicians, business leaders, and campaigners warn that climate change is a major threat, and then it all goes quiet again for a few months, and everyone is left to think, "well, it can't be that bad then".
As drivers of progress and generators of prosperity, responsible business leaders need to use every opportunity to shake us all out of our climate apathy and raise the alarm, at the same time as promoting how clean technologies will create a more successful and healthy economy. In the run up to the 2015 climate summit green businesses need to get vocal, get organised, and perhaps even get a little angry. We don't know precisely what will happen as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, but we do know we are recklessly gambling with the future of the global economy. Responsible businesses everywhere need to make the case for action as forcefully as possible, because the alternative is being forced to "take" a climate that poses a grave threat to economic growth and stability. Getting the chief executive to write a blog post about it is no longer enough.