Carbon: the new black
'Do you care about the environment? We do too!' used to be the sort of advertising copy only marginal, 'tree-hugging' organisations would use. It is now in the marketing lexicon of UK-based easyJet, one of the most high-profile low-cost airline companies, part of a growing sector that have certainly contributed to massive increases in airline traffic in recent years. EasyJet has a prominent 'Environment' link on its website. It flaunts the company's Environment Code, its support for the UK's Stern Review, use of biodegradable chemicals, and other environment-friendly measures.1
EasyJet is not an exception; global warming is now on the agenda at every major business. In the first half of 2007, especially since the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, its buzzword status seems even to have overtaken 'terrorism' in the media. As the Lifeworth Annual Review of Corporate Responsibility concluded in February, climate change has reached a tipping point, going from marginal to mainstream.2 To use the language of the fashion world: carbon is the new black.
Some still cling to the idea that global warming is a huge hoax. 'The Great Global Warming Swindle', a documentary transmitted on the UK's Channel 4, made strong arguments against the claim that carbon dioxide produced by industrial activity was the main reason for rising global temperatures.3 Its key counter-argument relied on the 'solar forcing' theory, according to which the natural fluctuation in solar activity (sunspots) explains changes in global temperatures. The time period presented as evidence was between the 1940s and 1970s, when temperatures dropped in spite of rapid industrialisation and massive increases in carbon emissions. The hitch with this argument is that there could be a time-lag in the climate-changing effect of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and that sunspot activity in the past decades has been low while temperatures have risen. Even if solar forcing explained previous changes in global temperatures, it does not seem a key cause for current rises.4
The programme claimed two principal reasons for the existence of this supposed hoax: first, that there were institutional interests in its maintenance, e.g. that an industry of journalists, researchers and NGOs depended on a climate change myth to justify their activities. However, this conspiracy theory runs contrary to long-standing evidence of corporate funding of research questioning human-induced global warming, and lobbying against government action on carbon emissions.5
Secondly, the programme asserted that focusing on climate change also served other powerful interests: namely, keeping the Global South from developing, and maintaining the status quo. But the emerging world has as much, if not more, interest in maintaining global public attention on the topic of global warming. The heightened impact of climate change on the poor, particularly those vulnerable to natural disasters, illustrates climate change's global effect-and that it is in the common interest to avert it. 'It is the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit', said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri. 'This does become a global responsibility in my view.'6 Christian Aid launched a campaign in February which presented global warming as the most critical matter for the world's poorest.7 Additionally, increased attention and action taken to counter global warming-namely, the development of renewable energies-would greatly benefit the South by providing sustainable energy solutions without necessarily impeding their economic development. And the need to diversify energy supplies to reduce GHG emissions would push energy prices down, making energy accessible to the poor.8 Finally, the strategic interests of major Western corporations-and thus of our own pensions and investments-are deeply embedded in Southern economic development. Preventing the South from reaching economic development through the artificial preservation of a global warming conspiracy would therefore be self-defeating.
Speaking in January at the World Economic Forum, Michael Cherkasky, CEO of Marsh & McLennan, warned of 'complacency' in business and government, accusing them of focusing on reacting to, rather than preventing, disaster.9 From touring some conferences on climate change in recent months, we have found that, for those who accept the science of climate change, there is often some way to go in understanding how to act on this at work. One response has been to ignore its relevance, by taking the stance that climate change exists but overlooking how it relates to one's profession, politics or organisation. Another is to downplay it, by accepting its status as a problem but as one less important to them than issues such as HIV/Aids, poverty or terrorism, which they prefer to focus on exclusively. Others pigeonhole the topic of global warming as a 'luxury problem' only the West has the time and affluence to worry about, and so not a concern for the world's poor. Lastly, still others displace the issue by claiming that its global status requires global action, therefore implying that to change their own activities would be inadequate and thus pointless. This position is displayed both by some in industrialised countries, who argue against changing their ways unless the emerging world joins in, and developing countries, who deny responsibility for the current state of the atmosphere and refuse to incur costs for a situation they have had no historical influence on. These responses effectively render someone's acknowledgement of climate change to be inconsequential. Together they form the Ignore, Downplay, Pigeonhole or Displace (IDPD; pronounce it 'iddy piddy') response to climate change.
Leading corporate citizens should avoid these standpoints and be clear about their inadequacy. We can't ignore or downplay climate change because it affects all of society, while energy consumption is involved in the pursuit of nearly any profession or endeavour. We can't pigeonhole it as a Western concern because it is already affecting millions of poor people worldwide. We cannot displace responsibility for action as the global nature of the challenge means that it is everyone's responsibility to act, and, if we need other people to act to be able to sustain our own actions, then this implies an additional arena of action focusing on engagement.