Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From a Climate Change Context, What is Business Really Selling?

Joel Makower over at GreenBiz has a thought-provoking piece from Copenhagen.  It's rooted in a challenge made by UN Climate Change Secretary, Yvo de Boer, to top business executives attending the conference:

The day began with a challenge from de Boer. "You've been focusing on the wrong issues. You've been focusing on risks and problems. You should be talking about green growth. And most of the groups are talking to themselves. The private sector plays a key role in green growth. But we don't really know what you're selling."

Indeed, what is business selling? De Boer wasn't referring necessarily about specific products, but about ideas and ideals -- the kind of world we want to build and which companies hope to operate profitably in the years to come. That question loomed large at this event: Can global business speak with a unified voice on climate? It was an expression made repeatedly throughout the day.

A series of breakouts explored three scenarios -- scenarios for 2012, 2020, and 2050. I attended the short-term one: What are the technologies, business models, and lifestyle changes that are realistically available in the next few years?

The problem with these breakout sessions, found Makower?

I couldn't help but notice the make-up of the room: primarily white male, mostly European and North American. There were a smattering of Asians and Indians in the room, but no Chinese, South American, Indian, or African CEOs, business leaders of countries that comprise the bulk of the world's population -- and the lion's share of greenhouse gas emissions.

There was no shortage of earnestness among those present. These are truly committed executives from proactive, if not progressive, companies that seem to understand the climate challenge and the opportunity, and who are hungering for a price on carbon they can use to make predictable business decisions for the foreseeable future.

("A price on carbon," by the way, is a mantra-like phrase that every speaker seems to utter, despite the fact that there is no clear consensus in the room about what that price should be or how it would be implemented -- carbon tax, cap-and-trade, etc. Nonetheless, those four words are received by knowing nods from the audience with each utterance.)

In the end, de Boer pretty much had it right: Most of these good people are talking primarily to themselves. The people who really need to be in the room are conspicuous by their absence.

It was sobering. If this group of fairly homogeneous executives can barely agree upon the nature of the problems and the most effective solutions, how can the bigger, much more diverse and unruly group of country representatives meeting at the Bella Center possibly do so?

Watching both the U.S. Senate's dysfunction as a body capable of solving problems, let alone hundreds of often corrupt, dysfunctional governments trying to hash out a global agreement, has me worried for humanity.

I was thinking earlier that it's like the people of a coastal city with a hurricane approaching arguing over who's going to pay for a sea wall, even as reports come in that the hurricane is going to hit sooner and harder than predicted.  While I realized that the analogy was not nearly complete, it captures the element of short sighted-stupidity that humanity's 'leaders' are displaying right now.

Maybe our governments -- mired in the tarpit-like influence of special interests and blinded by 'common knowledge' of what's possible -- are not the right ones to be leading here...

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