Did you hear the joke about business and global warming?
Last Updated: Thursday, October 29, 2009 | 5:07 PM ET
By Don Pittis, CBC News
Don Pittis has reported on business for Radio Hong Kong, the BBC and the CBC. Here's a pop news quiz. Who said: Legislation to fight global warming will spur innovation, create jobs, and give us all a good chance of survival?
Or how about: Without a stable climate there will be no business.
For a while recently, a lot of people thought it was the United States Chamber of Commerce, whose president came to Toronto this week. And what a PR coup it would have been if this defender of corporate America had actually said it!
But of course, it didn't.
It was the Yes Men who made the statements, posing as the Chamber of Commerce. It was all a big joke. They're the same gang of guerilla activists who posed as Dow Chemical spokesmen, declaring in 2004 that the company felt terrible about the damage the company had done in the Bhopal disaster, and that it would sell off Union Carbide to make restitution. Even after Dow Chemical's denial, bad publicity knocked billions off its share price.
This time, the Yes Men actually made it to air live from Washington's National Press Gallery. Even Fox News quoted them, to the network's eternal regret. The real Chamber of Commerce made it to air, too, as you can see on any number of YouTube videos. They stormed in to declare the Yes Men statements a fraud.
Why is it that commercial and environmental interests seem so opposed in today's economy?
I was chatting with Toby Heaps, the Canadian founder of the magazine Corporate Knights. We both noticed that many of our business friends are very environmentally oriented in their personal lives and even worried about what climate change means for their children and grandchildren. In their corporate roles, however, they have trouble taking a strong environmental line.
Corporate Knights tries to bridge the gap between business and environmentalism. The magazine is a business success in its own right, with an expansion into the Washington D.C. market scheduled for January. With a foot in both worlds, Heaps understands why groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce won't support global warming legislation. It's the same reason the Council of Canadian Chief Executives pussyfoots around the issue.
'Industry associations tend to represent the lowest common denominator of the companies in their membership.'—Brian Kelly, Schulich School of Business
"There will be some real losers from climate change legislation," says Heaps, "but a lot of winners too."
Brian Kelly teaches sustainable business at York University's Schulich School of Business. The school just hit No. 1 on the Aspen Institute's list of "green" MBA programs, beating out the likes of Yale and Stanford. No matter how much individuals may be worried about global warming, most business groups just can't bring themselves to become activists, Kelly says.
"Industry associations tend to represent the lowest common denominator of the companies in their membership," he says.
Some take stronger line
In spite of that, a lot of companies have an interest taking a pro-green stance. Apple, General Electric and some others have publicly divorced themselves from the U.S. Chamber. So has Barack Obama.
Here in Canada, companies such as Bombardier, Cascade and Power Corp. have taken a stronger line against global warming. Even Shell and Suncor have come part way, although that may be just to help them control the agenda.
But part way is okay. I'm currently reading a book someone gave me called Climate Cover-up that documents the decades-long, business-financed campaign to discredit global warming with slogans like, "Some say the Earth is warming. Some also said the Earth was flat."
Also worth checking out for those who've never seen it is "The Greening of Planet Earth" movement, where "expert scientists assert that CO2 is not a pollutant, but a nutrient to life on earth." Watch as the planet gets greener and healthier. Even the deserts will bloom. Junk science.
Currently scientists who actually study the atmosphere and the oceans know the arctic seas are melting and the glaciers are disappearing. Lake Louise doesn't look like its famous picture any more. This week, an independent statistical analysis commissioned by Associated Press confirms the warming trend.
For those of us convinced that business is a good thing, and market forces an indispensable tool for overcoming the world's problems, foot-dragging by powerful lobby groups like the U.S. Chamber is disheartening.
As Jared Diamond tells us in his book Collapse, someone on Easter Island chopped down the last tree, trapping the formerly seafaring people forever in poverty. If the Easter Islanders have any excuse, it is that the destruction of their economy happened over hundreds of years. Like the proverbial boiled frog, the change was too gradual to register with the population or their leaders.
Business, governed by next year's profits and led by CEOs who could well be out of the picture in five years, and by executives focused on this year's million-dollar bonus, is notoriously bad at looking at the long term. We look at the Wall Street banks and companies like GM and say, "Why didn't they see it coming?"
Former Industry Minister John Manley takes over as president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives on Jan. 1. With the support of the Canadian banks, insurance companies, the high technology sector, and those who really care about the long-term future, maybe he can move the group away from the lowest common denominator.
Then he can hold a press conference and say this: "Legislation to fight global warming will spur innovation, create jobs, and give us all a good chance of survival. Because without a stable climate, there will be no business." And it won't be a joke.
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