Why the U.S. Needs Business to Save It From Congress

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images
Heat waves as the temperature reached 119 degrees and rising in Death Valley National Park, California.

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a climate bill to move through the United States Congress.

That's why the Obama administration is threading its climate policy through the Environmental Protection Agency instead of Capitol Hill, where it tried and failed in 2010. And it's why a group called the Risky Business Project yesterday published a report for U.S. businesses and investors that converts the relentless conclusions of climate science into dollars, a currency much easier to understand.

The Risky Business report suggests that there’s no single climate price tag for the whole country. There’s not even a single country. The study divides the U.S. into eight regions, to help executives and investors understand, sometimes down to the county level, what projected damages may cost. The authors -- themselves some of the biggest names in U.S. business and government -- tell the private sector, "This is not a problem for another day. The investments we make today -- this week, this month, this year -- will determine our economic future."

Without climate policy, the U.S. over the next generation could face up to $35 billion in damages a year from East Coast and Gulf of Mexico storms, a greater than 10 percent drop in Midwestern and Southern soy, corn, wheat and cotton yields, and up to $12 billion a year for new power-related costs, according to the report.

To address these threats, the nation needs business to save it from Congress, an institution where denial of climate change defies scientific fact and public opinion, and where voting districts are designed to lock in party purity. What climate change may mean isn't making it into voting districts gerrymandered to keep things like that out.

Companies are different. They conduct risk analysis for a living, the animating assumption driving the report's analysis. Most big businesses can already articulate any direct risks they think they might face from climate change, and also indirect risks from either regulation or consumers turning on soot-dusted brands.

Over time local inattentiveness to rising threats could make some voting districts less hospitable for stores, factories and corporate headquarters. It could mean fewer jobs, and that could mean different elected officials. It could mean different voters. In the Southwest and Southeast in particular, climate change "may also mean that Americans have no choice but to migrate to cooler and more livable areas, disrupting lives, livelihoods, and regional identities formed over generations," the authors write.

Politicians today may feel that climate change is interfering with their talking points. In the future it may change their hometowns.

The Risky Business Project was started and funded by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, hedge-fund billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

The project came together to forge agreement on "the nature of the problem," as Paulson put it yesterday, rather than to advocate for a single solution more specific than "a strong policy response from the national government."

Businesses large and small have a better opportunity now to define what that means than anyone ever will.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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