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Sarah Severn's blog

Climate Change & Science: Time for Business to Advocate

I have worked on the issue of climate change and clean energy within corporate America for over two decades. During this time, I’ve participated in countless conversations on the topic in the C suite, the boardroom, in business organizations and government appointed taskforces. I’ve witnessed a growing acceptance of science and a clear acknowledgement about the fundamental risks that climate change poses. I have also seen an appreciation for the unique roles of both government and the market in creating solutions.

Short Term Thinking Guarantees Failure
One constant presence during my corporate work has been the EPA. Established in 1970 by President Nixon, it has been of vital service to the American people and to the business community.  That’s why it’s disturbing to see President Trump’s plan to cut EPA’s 2018 budget by 25% and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget, one of the federal government premier climate science agencies, by 26%. The latter cut would eliminate critical funding for climate change related science programs, including the satellite data division, which is a key repository of climate and environmental information.

While many polluters grumble about the EPA’s powers, forward-looking businesses appreciate its consistent dedication to science, education and the tools it provides. The Center for Corporate Climate Leadership is one such example. In 2015, 365 companies and investors came together in a show of support for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

“Our support is firmly grounded in economic reality,” wrote the businesses, including industry giants such as General Mills, Mars Inc., Nestle, Staples, Unilever and VF Corporation. “Clean energy solutions are cost effective and innovative ways to drive investment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Increasingly, businesses rely on renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions to cut costs and improve corporation performance.”

Businesses are Stepping Up
Responsible companies, who are used to assessing both risk and return, are stepping up in ways they never have before. Over 1000 companies have signed the Climate Declaration and since November 2016 more than 760 companies and investors have signed the Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement. More than 600 companies with over $8.1 trillion in annual revenue have now made over a thousand ambitious commitments as part of the We Mean Business coalition’s take action campaign. Meanwhile the prospect of stranded assets even has Exxon setting an internal price on carbon, alongside Microsoft, Delta Airlines, Bank of America and others.

States and Cities are Engaging
At the state and city level, there is also significant momentum. 100 Resilient Cities is looking intensely at so-called "sub-national" climate action. In Washington State, despite the failure to pass the first US carbon tax initiative in November, there are now three carbon-pricing bills that have been introduced during the 2017 session. Similar bills are being introduced in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York and the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) is mobilizing companies to support these initiatives. Finally, the newly formed 'Climate Leadership Council', a conservative group including former Secretaries of State Baker and Shultz, has put forward a national plan for a carbon tax with the revenue going back to households in the form of a dividend.

As one of my colleagues says, “ the trend is our friend ”, but we cannot be complacent. The momentum has created a backlash by those with vested interests in maintaining both a fossil fuel based economy, and the associated concentration of wealth and power. We have witnessed this before, but the difference today is that the stakes are higher and the anti-science agenda more overt. The Trump administration is using the false promise of restoring jobs in coal and oil to wage war both on the EPA and on climate science. This has nothing to do with helping the American people and everything to do with dark money.

Dr. Jonathon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences says in his recent blog, “The greatness of America is strengthened by science—it helps us lift people up, improve the human condition, and build a better world... science can build a future where people and nature thrive together, for generations to come. Ignoring science will doom us to an impoverished, degraded world.”

Time for Action
Scientists are, thankfully, fighting back. The recently formed 314 Action PAC had 2,500 people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math sign up for training on how to run for office. The U.S. business community needs to also step up its game. We have to vigorously defend our scientists, the EPA, and demand that we get the climate and energy policies that will lead us to a clean, prosperous and more equitable future.

Sarah Severn is a sustainability consultant, strategic advisor for Washington Business Climate Action and ASBC board member.

Getting a Price on Carbon in Washington State

In October 2014, 100 companies joined together and launched the Washington Climate Declaration, a state level version of the national Climate Declaration created by CERES. Since launching, that number has increased to 185 signatories, including several business associations including ASBC, who believe that taking action on climate just makes good business sense.

Collectively, we are known as Washington Business for Climate Action. Our leadership team is made up of business people from across Washington State and our mission is to engage Washington businesses by providing opportunities for education, innovation, and advocacy on climate and energy that meet the needs of a diverse range of business sectors.

WBCA is also linked to a broader effort in the state - the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. This is a fast growing coalition of diverse constituencies that includes business, labor, communities of color, health, faith based groups and environmental NGOs. We are uniting to support reducing carbon pollution and promote just and sustainably shared prosperity.

Meanwhile, the Washington legislature is stalled over HB 1314, Governor Inslee’s bill that would introduce a cap and trade system and put a price on carbon. The initial version of the bill did not make it into the House budget, and a revised version is now under consideration.

While many businesses have testified in favor of capping and pricing carbon pollution, the prospects for HB 1374 still appear cloudy, due to a divided legislature. Therefore, the next step is likely to involve developing an initiative for the people to vote on. There are good indications from prior polls that this would be popular with voters.

When it comes to setting a price on carbon, business appears to generally fall into one of two camps:

The Business as Usual voice

  • Washington State is already clean (referring to our current abundance of hydro power),
  • State level action is irrelevant - we need to wait for national and international level action, and
  • We are already investing in reducing emissions/clean energy and we should get credit for that.

The Breakthrough Business voice

  • Reliance on hydro gives us a false sense of security in light of diminishing snowpack. We need to grow all forms of clean energy,
  • Waiting for national and international action is not leadership, and does not position us to take advantage of economic opportunities, and
  • We need a price on carbon to attract impact investors to the table to grow jobs and accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy.

ASBC is uniquely positioned to support the work of WBCA and the Alliance. Washington State will need to synchronize with other jurisdictions, including other countries. There is already strong momentum here on the west coast. California and British Columbia have instituted cap and trade and a carbon tax, respectively, and when Oregon and Washington join them, the fifth largest economy in the world will have a price on carbon. That should send a clear message to the other Washington that, as my countryman Winston Churchill said “The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

Sarah Severn is a board member of ASBC. After 21 years at Nike Inc., she relocated to Washington State. She is currently consulting and acting as a coordinator for Washington Business for Climate Action.