Hank Boerner is Chairman of Governance & Accountability Institute, based in NYC. He’s been a business journalist, corporate communicator, issue manager and crisis response coach for corporate leaders for three decades. He honed his trend analysis of issues over the course of managing 300-plus critical incidents affecting the private and public sectors.
Christopher P. Skroupa: In June the President of the United States announced that the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change would be abandoned by his administration. What impact could this have on the overall global agreement, and what is ahead for the United States in the global debate about climate change?
Hank Boerner: In the Paris meetings, the United States voluntarily agreed to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels and to commit up to $3 billion in various aid to poor countries by 2020. A small amount of money overall, we could say, and thanks to many actions already taken, we are cutting our greenhouse gas (GhGs) emissions as a nation.
Abandonment of the Paris Agreement means that this country at the Federal government level decided to take a back seat in addressing the challenges of global and domestic climate change—in effect saying that the many opportunities for the nation in creating solutions to the challenges is not important anymore. The good news is not everyone in the U.S. is walking away from the consensus reached among the almost 200 sovereign leaders in Paris.
In our monitoring we see the leaders now of public and private companies, institutional investors, local and state government agencies, foundations, family trusts, professional practices, entrepreneurs, trade associations, and others publicly committing to carrying out the important elements of the Paris Agreement. It is important to point out that this is all voluntary. That’s in the best traditions of what we can call “The American Way.”
As for our government’s commitment made in Paris, this is troubling. These “Conferences of the Parties” were held over two decades to bring together the leaders from the public, corporate and social sectors in most of the world’s nations to dialogue, to explore and agree on “what can be done” to address the effects of climate change. This effort at heart is all about limiting the emissions of GhGs and developing a wide range of innovative solutions as the community of nations moves toward a lower-carbon economy.
We should note here that the measures agreed to be taken by all of the countries involved were voluntary, so the argument that this agreement would stifle the American economy is specious at best. The claim was that 2.7 million jobs would be lost if we carried out the Agreement. Rubbish! We are going to see many more jobs created in new industry settings as parties other than the Feds continue the effort.
The sad part of the administration’s action is that a signal is sent that the country is also abandoning its leadership in the sustainability arena, which of course is only partially true.
Skroupa: What will happen now to the Paris Agreement, the consensus reached by the 193 nations, and the overall global effort to address climate change challenges with the U.S. absent?
Boerner: Well, for now the Federal government may be absent in various ways going forward, but in the United States we see private industry, state and local governments, foundations, colleges & universities, and especially institutional investors vigorously committing to moving forward to carry out the important elements of the Paris Agreement. This is a critical point, in that the Federal government is not the only driver in the American institutional and “We the People’s” efforts to address climate change.
The main point coming out of the Paris meeting was that participating nations would each do their part to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius/two degree Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial age level. Since American companies do business in many countries, of course these enterprises would be part of other nations’ efforts.
What will be needed to accomplish the 2 degrees goal is political will, the financial means of implementing the good intentions, the necessary technological advances, the private sector product and service offerings, and capacity-building in both developed and underdeveloped nations. All of these are present in the American economy and culture.
Think about it this way: Except now for the Federal government’s commitment and political will, all of these elements could be and are in place in this, the world’s leading economy, in local and state government, in the investment community, in the private sector, and in the social sector.
Skroupa: On a practical basis, what does this mean, for example, for investors? For entrepreneurs…for managers of large enterprises? What are the risk and opportunities as U.S. domestic and multinational companies address climate change challenges?
Boerner: First we should think about the great influence of such public sector fiduciaries on investment practices, and see where they deploy their capital in placing their bets on companies addressing climate change solutions. These important capital market players include CalPERS, CalSTRS, the New York City Pension System, New York State Common Fund, the treasurers of Connecticut and Rhode Island, and many other state and city pension systems that do in fact embrace concepts of the Paris consensus and are helping to implement climate change solutions with their investments in clean energy and other technologies.
On the corporate side, where the fiduciary capital is being deployed, we see company-after-company signing on to the “We Are Still In” [collective movement] to state their intentions to work toward the Paris goals. This includes Intel, Microsoft, Bloomberg LP, Starbucks, Nike, Campbell’s Soup Company, International Flavors & Fragrances, Mars Incorporated, Apple, Wal-Mart Stores, and many more across all sectors and industries. Trade associations are stating their commitment, including U.S. Green Building Council, the Outdoor Industry Association and National Ski Areas Foundation. Entrepreneurial ventures are stating their commitment to the Paris Agreement goals as well, such as Keller Estate Winery, Dallas Maid, Crystal Mountain Resort and Sons and Daughters Farm.
This is very encouraging as it is grassroots up and top down in decision-making and voluntary—not government mandate-driven. There is information about all of this on the We Are Still movement website, which lists more than 2,000 organizations on board since the White House announcement setting aside the Paris Agreement.
In terms of innovation and climate change “solutions,” there are many opportunities opening up in such activities as solar, wind, geothermal, fuel cells, tidal surge, and other means of generating energy, as well as in some traditional fossil fuels such as natural gas. Each of these makes a contribution toward holding global temperatures to two degrees.
Skroupa: What about government influence, including encouraging capital investment in climate change solutions, beyond the Federal level?
Boerner: There’s lots of encouraging news here. The U.S. Conference of Mayors just concluded their annual meeting in Florida. A series of climate-related resolutions were adopted on a non-partisan basis. Numerous major U.S. cities and well as smaller municipalities support the move toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs). The Mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, Steve Benjamin said that the cities and mayors can and will lead the transition away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy.
The mayors also appealed to the White House to stay in the Paris Agreement and to move ahead with President Barack Obama’s “Clean Power Plan,” which would cut carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity-generating sector. They talked about infrastructure in terms of encouraging greater investment in electrification of transportation systems, using renewables, and encouraging investment in wind at all levels of government.
Skroupa: Going back to the Paris Agreement, what is ahead now that the U.S. will begin the withdrawal process and not implement the terms of the Agreement?
Boerner: We are said to be the world’s second largest polluter. With five percent of the world population we use twenty percent or more of the global energy. So what I and many others think is a what the U.S. agreed to in Paris was a moral commitment to address the threats posed by climate change, to our own country and to the family of nations, but, as we saw in the White House announcement, the White House’s intention is to withdraw. There is a formal process for that beginning with notice to the Conference of Parties by the United States of America. The final withdrawal could be months away, perhaps very near to the next presidential election. A lot can happen in that time. Perhaps our Negotiator-in-Chief will become intrigued with the idea of pursuing a new deal on climate change or have a change of heart about abandoning the Paris Agreement.
No matter what, there are many powerful centers of influence in our economy that will be moving us forward as a nation, as a world leader, in climate change matters. That’s the good news in all of this.