Al, Arnold, and Sir Richard The End of the Beginning?
Richard Branson's announcement at the Clinton Global Initiative last week signals, I think, the end of the beginning of what promises to be a long battle against climate change. (Disclosure: my firm, GreenOrder, conducted the carbon inventory for the Clinton Global initiative.) Coming soon after Gore's movie and Arnold's signing of ambitious climate change legislation in California, Branson's announcement that he will invest $3 billion in low-carbon, renewable energy technologies over the next 10 years shows that some of the most ambitious, powerful, and self-promoting people on the planet now see it in their interest to jump on the climate bandwagon. Climate change has truly arrived as an issue on the global stage. Now comes the hard part With gas prices already falling and this year's weak hurricane season (thus far), the question is already becoming — can the interest in this issue be sustained? After the initial spurt of passion and attention, will people really care about fighting a decades-long battle against a tremendously complex, still largely abstract global phenomenon? Moreover, with a problem that big, will the challenge seem so overwhelming that people will lose hope, or just learn to cope? These are the questions that I think we need to turn our attention to now. But I fear that the "is it happening or is it not happening" debate has gone on so long that it has lulled us into complacency. Now that personalities like Al, Arnold, and Sir Richard say "it's happening," we cannot just assume that other people and businesses across the world are immediately going to take action to do something about it. To do so would be a classic case of fighting the last war.
One has to be realistic. People, and the press, have a short attention span. The story "climate change is real, frightening, and we're responsible!" can only remain the headline for so long. The next story, the seeds of which are already being planted, might well be "we can live with it" or "climate change is beneficial." As David Letterman joked last week about the sunny weather, "A beautiful day here in New York City this global warming is not so bad, is it?" Joking aside, we need to stop focusing on the question of whether climate change is happening, and start focusing on why we should care and what can be done about it.
This won't be easy. These questions are value laden and incredibly complex. Answering them will require very real trade offs between things we hold dear. The good news is that many of the world's largest companies are already preparing to deal with climate change. Some are even starting to chart strategies to profit by addressing it proactively. But even these leaders need certainty that this issue will remain a priority. Just like the general public, they will need more clarity about why this is truly important for society to address. And they, like the rest of us, will need insight and guidance into how to do so. The next phase of the battle against climate change and global environmental degradation has begun. Let's make it the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end.