Return on Sustainability: The Climate Imperative
Humankind is faced with an unprecedented challenge. Never before has an ecological crisis presented as fundamental and serious a threat to our way of life on such a global scale as climate change. It seems that until recently, very few people—aside from climate scientists and a handful of environmentalists—paid attention to the greenhouse gases we were emitting into the atmosphere. I believe we are just now awakening to the reality of the situation.
We got into this situation because, over the past century, we have built our capitalistic market structure on two principles: an abundance of cheap fossil fuel energy and a focus on maximizing shareholder value in our business activity. These have been detrimental because, as market pressures have driven companies to focus on short-term profits, social and environmental impacts have only been considered insofar as necessary to avoid financial loss due to regulation.
I believe these principles are changing, and I believe climate change will be the driving force behind this change, because climate change is real, and people and corporations have begun to feel its impacts. Fossil fuels, especially oil, are no longer cheap, and the many costs of their extraction and use are on the rise. Additionally, consumer, market, and government pressures will no longer allow businesses to ignore their climate impacts. Before I get into the business case though, I first want to lay out the climate imperative and describe the environment in which your business will be operating.
Climate Change is Happening
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a consortium of more than 1,000 of the world’s top scientists, stated that the “warming of the climate systems is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”ix This statement leaves no room for doubt that the planet’s temperature is increasing. Debate is now focused on how fast average temperatures will increase and what the full range of implications may be. Figure 2 is a graph that the IPCC created to show numerous models, using a range of estimates from conservative to aggressive:
Though this model shows a considerable range in potential results from a minimum increase of 1.4 to a possible high of 5.8 degrees Celsius, it illustrates that, based on historical climate data, global temperatures will increase over the next century at the highest rate in the past 10,000 years. The extent to which this temperature increase occurs depends both on the changes that take place in natural systems and on human activity. Unfortunately, even the most aggressive numbers have proved to be understated. The first IPCC report predicted that the sea ice over the North Pole might be gone during the summer months of 2030, but now climatologists believe this may occur between 2008 and 2012.