Politicians Who Deny Climate Change Cannot Be Pro-Business

Harvard Business Review

It finally seems to be dawning on many Americans that there's something to this climate change thing. The historic drought has been hard to ignore. While belief in a long-term trend because it's hot out right now is a bit ridiculous, it's a start.

You can see a shift in how the media covers weather. The statement "because of climate change..." is often stated clearly without caveats such as, "what some scientists think may be a warming planet." You see it in the UN calling for action to help the hungry cope with rising food prices "in an age of increasing population, demand and climate change."

And you see it in the growing number of mega-corporations — including America's Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Cisco, HP, J&J, Nike, and P&G — signing on to the "2 Degree Challenge Communiqué," a call for the world's governments to take strong action to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is basically accepted as fact the world over. But you wouldn't know it watching our political conventions (or at least one of them). So while the world seems to be waking up to a fundamental, existential threat to our species (and not to "the planet," which will be fine with or without us), the US policy debate remains mostly deaf, dumb, and blind.

Climate change has become a political "third rail," harder to talk about than changing Social Security or Medicare. We didn't hear any mention of it at the GOP convention, except as a punchline, and we didn't hear much at the DNC convention...except for one quick, but important, remark from President Obama. Former President Clinton mentioned energy efficiency and Vice President Biden said the words "clean energy" once. But then President Obama, after duly noting the chance to create more natural gas jobs, spoke about building wind turbines and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Finally, he stepped firmly on the third rail: "Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke; they are a threat to our children's future."

This is great, but let's not get too excited. One line does not a policy make.

Still, Obama's admission that climate change is real (a low bar for showing leadership these days) is light years from Governor Romney's dismissive attitude. His convention speech mocked President Obama for his earlier promise to "begin to slow the rise of the oceans." Romney offered instead to "help you and your family" — as if the health and state of our entire planet has nothing to do with the health of our families.

Here's what makes the general silence on climate and the mocking from the self-identified pro-business party so absurd: tackling climate change is the smartest thing we can do for both our public health and our private sector. Reducing carbon emissions from our power plants, cars, and factories cleans the air and saves a lot of money. At the macro level, the burning of coal alone costs the U.S. about $350 billion per year in health (asthma, heart attacks, and so on) and pollution costs. At the micro level, from companies down to households, the opportunities to get lean and save money are vast.

But more strategically, tackling carbon is an immense economic opportunity. Here's billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson on the upside potential:

"I've described increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as one of the greatest threats to the ongoing prosperity and sustainability of life on the planet. The good news is that creating businesses that will power our growth, and reduce our carbon output while protecting resources, is also the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our generation. [There is no] choice between growth and reducing our carbon output."

This quest will drive innovation and create millions of jobs for some lucky companies and countries. Is this multi-trillion-dollar opportunity something we really want to miss out on? The other major economies are not sitting this one out. Germany is quickly moving its electric grid to renewables. China is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to energy efficiency and much more to the clean economy in general.

But let's say you don't buy the argument that fighting climate change keeps us competitive globally, saves trillions of dollars, and generates new wealth. Then how about the overwhelming national security rationale? Using less oil, for example, reduces funding to petro-dictators around the world. The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, puts is very bluntly: "Your gas money funds terrorism."

On this score the difference between the parties is stark. The DNC's platform includes the words "climate change" at least 18 times and lists it as an "Emerging Threat" along with cybersecurity, biological weapons, and transnational crime. While "emerging" may not be the word I'd choose, it's leaps and bounds beyond the GOP' s party platform, which mentions climate change just once...and again, only to mock it. Their platform complains that the Obama administration has elevated "climate change" (with the sarcastic quotation marks) to the level of a severe threat to our security.

But let's be clear: it's not the Democrats or even President Obama specifically that declared climate change a national security threat. That would be the Pentagon in its Quadrennial Defense Review —two years ago.

A strong plan to tackle climate change through government policy, business innovation, and citizen action is not just something that's not optional; it's preferable. Moving away from carbon to a cleaner economy makes us healthier, more profitable, and more secure.

My work is not political — I try to help companies create business value from sustainability and green thinking, so I normally avoid these kinds of discussions. But the discrepancy in party positions on this most critical issue has become too extreme to ignore.

There's blame on both sides, but let's not pretend the two parties neglect climate change equally. Yes, it's a shame that most Democrats will not stand up and proudly stand behind many of the positions in their own platform. But the GOP's denial of climate science, and all the risks and opportunities it presents, is surreal.

Their views and policies on climate won't help our businesses deal with, and profit from, the largest market shift we've ever seen. And they won't help prepare our country for the hard realities of life in the 21st century.

Winston is the co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold and the author of Green Recovery. He advises some of the world’s biggest companies on environmental strategy. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWinston.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.