Finding Balance and Leadership in the Climate Change Battle

Robert Siegel
Jan 14 · 7 min read

Back in 1995, author David Korten wrote, in When Corporations Rule the World, about the idea of a three-legged stool forming the basis of a stable society. The three legs are: government, business, and the people. Korten argued that society should aim for a balance between those three, in terms of the power they should wield, and the consideration they should be given, when thinking about our collective future. That simple notion, though hardly the main point of the book, has stuck with me all these years and continues to ring true.

More recently, I read The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard. Jaccard, a professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University with a PhD in Energy Economics, has an extensive background in public policy, including consulting with governments, testifying before Congress and serving on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The book, which sets out to debunk “myths that hinder progress,” views the topic primarily through a public policy lens, though it occasionally strays into other domains.

Some of the myths the book attacks, after providing a brief primer on the social sciences of myth-making and self-delusion, include the idea of conspiracy among climate scientists, that countries will agree more than superficially on how to fight climate change, that investments in fossil fuels are still necessary, that we as individuals can solve the problem by simply changing our behavior, and that we must put a price on carbon to succeed. On this last point, he argues that flexible regulations, such as those implemented in California and British Columbia could potentially be more effective. Indeed, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard was recently cited to me by Steve Oldham, CEO of the direct air capture company Carbon Engineering, as making the business case for their partnership with Chevron to begin producing fuel from carbon dioxide drawn from the air, an important step in our planetary decarbonization journey.

Jaccard’s grasp of the subject is authoritative and deep, making for a highly informative read, and many of his points hit the mark, except when he strays beyond his expertise, as he does when talking about energy efficiency. Although he cites Amory Lovins’ 1979 book, Soft Energy Paths as a starting point, it’s clear, when he claims that energy efficiency is rarely (if ever) profitable, that he has not keep up with Lovins’ later work such as his 2011 book Reinventing Fire, which shows how we can cut our energy usage by 24% while growing the economy by 158%. In a talk this fall, Lovins confirmed that those predictions have closely tracked the actual numbers. In the 2010–16 timeframe, Lovins says that efficiency contributed more than twice as much to carbon reduction as renewables did, which seems to be a well-kept secret. True, much of that has taken place at industrial and commercial sites using deeper retrofits, including what Lovins calls integrative designs, that are often required to get the really big savings. But this clearly escaped Jaccard’s analysis, which leaned a bit too heavily on personal anecdotes rather than hard data.

The other major shortfall of the book, in my opinion, is that he overlooks the role of businesses and the marketplace, acting either voluntarily or in response to non-government measures as well as public policy, that have played and will continue to play a huge role in moving the needle on emissions. That’s not to say the government action is not crucial, it clearly is. But as we have seen since 2016, as the US Federal government has turned sharply away from climate action, state and local governments, as well as businesses have ramped up their commitments, rushing in to fill the leadership void.

While this might be outside the scope of what the author chose to cover, omitting it gives an incomplete picture of what climate success can and hopefully will be. It’s essential at this moment in history, with climate change bearing down upon us and with critically important elections coming up next year, to be clear about these things. The fight against climate change needs to be a broad movement, including not only government action and citizen activism, but by everyone in all the roles they play, as consumers, investors, employees, business owners, community members, role models, and voters.

There has been a good deal of corporate bashing going on in the current campaign cycle. A lot of it is deserved. But it’s important to understand where this comes from. Elected officials in the US and elsewhere, in pursuit of neoliberal policies, as well as generous campaign funding, have abandoned their responsibility to oversee and regulate businesses, while businesses, driven by their commitment to shareholders, have taken advantage of this, often to the detriment of society and the environment. In short, two of the three legs on the stool have moved so close together as to resemble a two-legged stool, not something you want to balance your society on. This needs to change, and reforms are urgently needed. That being said, businesses can and must play a key role in the battle against climate change, through a combination of both voluntary action and regulatory compliance. The good news is that this has already become a major movement across a broad swath of the business community.

Examples of constructive contributions by businesses are too numerous to mention, but I will give a few examples here. Just last week, a group of 75 CEO’s, employing over 2 million people, along with union leaders representing over 12.5 million workers, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Accord. Companies signing on to The Climate Pledge, founded by Amazon, pledge to be net-zero by 2040, ten years before the timeline spelled out in Paris. Pursuant to this, Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery trucks, pledged $100 million to rainforest restoration and committed to increase its share of renewable energy. The RE100 is a group of companies who have voluntarily committed to 100% renewable power. To date, 216 companies have signed on with more signing on every day. Movements towards transparency demanded by customers and employees and resolutions by shareholders have pushed companies to clean up their acts. The Carbon Disclosure Project has identified 25 companies that are responsible for more than half of all global industrial emission. All of these are energy companies, and most are feeling pressure, even without government action, to revise their practices, by shifting to lower carbon energy sources and investing in carbon capture technology. A recent article in Forbes lists 101 companies that are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint. While it’s true that virtually all of these big companies still have room for improvement, taking both positive and negative steps at the same time, it’s worth remembering that if a giant corporation reduces its emissions by even a per cent or two, that has far more impact better that many households doing everything they can.

While most of the attention has been given to energy, manufacturing and transportation companies, I recently came to understand the role that retail can play in this journey, and what I found was surprising.

Listening to Home Depot’s VP of Merchandising and Sustainability Ron Jarvis tell the story at GreenBuild last month, of that company’s sustainability journey was an eye opener for me. It underscored the role not only of retailers, but also of citizens in the role of advocates and protesters.

Here’s the story as Jarvis tells it.

The company was surprised one day, to find themselves the target of a nationwide protest against the impact that their wood purchasing policies were having on ancient rainforests. Says Jarvis, “the truth is we didn’t really have a wood purchasing policy,” but that was about to change. They called in representative leaders of the protest groups, invited them to walk through a store with them and point out any concerns, which they did.

The company then spent the next two years, understanding what they had, looking at every product containing wood and what was right and wrong with it. They also studied all the places where wood could be purchased, and which places were best to avoid, such as the Amazon and Congo basins, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. They reviewed their findings with the environmental groups, and from that point forward they have a policy on wood purchases that set a high standard for environmental responsibility and has put a tracking system in place to ensure that they follow it. The new policy involved among other things, moving $90 million worth of purchases out of SE Asia due to inadequate traceability.

From there the company went on to evaluate other “products of concern,” that might be found on their shelves. Determined, it would seem, not to be blindsided as they were with the lumber issue, they followed a similar process regarding products with potential issues such as chemicals, energy use, water consumption, carbon emissions and more. They reached out to the suppliers and leveraged the power of the purchase order to steer their inventory in a more sustainable direction.

Today you cannot buy a shower head or a toilet at Home Depot without an EPA WaterSense label, which certifies that they are measurably 20% more efficient than average. Likewise, you will hard pressed to find paint containing VOCs, or lightbulbs or other electrical devices that are not highly efficient.

According to Jarvis, in 2018, their customers saved seven million metric tons of carbon emissions as the result of their purchases at Home Depot, a number that when extended over the life of those products, approaches 50 million. They also saved $1 billion in energy costs.

When you think about all the places where Home Depot operates, including both liberal and conservative areas, you soon realize as Jarvis points out, that they’ve been able to do something that Congress has been unable to (although EPA did help point the way).

When the three legs of our society: government, business, and the people, each do their part, we have a balanced, equitable society. And if all three work together to address the crisis of climate change, we have our best chance of preserving a world in which future generations can flourish.

A shout out to all of you out there who are working on this problem in every way that you are. It’s going to take all of us, doing all we can

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