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    The New Warrior’s Cry: Veni Vidi Vigilo – I Came, I Saw, I Protect

The New Warrior’s Cry: Veni Vidi Vigilo – I Came, I Saw, I Protect

January 6th, 2016|

First published in the Huffington Post, September 8th, 2015

Since Julius Caesar pronounced his famous words, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” — “I came, I saw, I conquered” — it has been the mantra for financial progress, military victory, and sexual success.

But a few months ago, Pope Francis eloquently and convincingly called for a different relationship to our common home: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth…but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Many other spiritual and secular leaders have echoed his sentiments.

As a secular Jewish fan of the Pope, and with a big dash of chutzpah, I’d summarize his proposed paradigm as follows:
Veni, vidi, vigilo.
I came, I saw, I protect.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” has delivered us to the precipice of a planet where chaos looms. Conquering and dominating nature guides most commerce and development in the world. From Arizona to Dubai, we build where there is no food and water as if we can just overcome the problem, and eat and consume goods as if they are inexhaustible resources useful for our pleasure and convenience alone.

There is another way.

Veni, vidi, vigilo demands that we notice our surroundings, both natural and manmade, and take responsibility for our place in the picture. “Vigilo” in Latin has two meanings: “I protect” and “I keep watch.” Just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, keeping watch over our common home is the price of our survival. This new paradigm holds the keys to a habitable planet where plenty has a new meaning and our children and grandchildren have a shot at a stable world.

Winona LaDuke, the Native American leader, defines a warrior as “one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves and above all, the children, the future of humanity.” Almost every moral code, religious and secular, implores us to claim this responsibility — to be ferocious protectors, as opposed to ferocious conquerors. It’s not always so easy.

But surprising protectors have emerged in recent years. A few examples are in the IT industry. The data centers that power, inform and govern our lives use huge quantities of energy, over 10% of global electricity usage. Google, Facebook and Apple are all investing their time, money, and political capital in moving rapidly to 100% clean energy. Their just rewards are predictable costs, as well as stable energy sources for a future where fossil fuels will be expensive or unavailable.

In addition, some more unusual suspects have taken exceptional steps. This is not a fantasy column that pronounces multinationals as benign world saviors. But credit is due for those that step up to protect instead of conquer, at least in some areas. McDonald’s, working with Greenpeace, led the moratorium on soy from newly deforested land in the Amazon in 2006. Interface Carpet, the world’s largest carpet company, used biomimicry to create its signature modular carpet products that have eliminated nearly all of its landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. And in the health industry, the exemplar of a corporation stepping up remains CVS’s 2014 decision to step away from the sale of cigarettes, a $2 billion annual revenue hit. All of these companies still need massive changes. But they have each in their own way moved outside their comfort zones on behalf of our common home.

And in the public arena, one can never be too grateful to the Democratic and Republican United States senators (working together!) who passed the revolutionary Clean Air Act in 1970. This law remains the biggest reason the air in the United States is not as dirty as the air in India or China. And today, many of the largest school districts in the United States are beginning to collaborate through the Green Schools Alliance to transform markets and policy, shift behavior, and maintain and power buildings to the highest standards. These school districts are actually claiming responsibility for protecting the future of the children they teach. Veni, vidi, vigilo.

Somehow, all of us have to begin protecting the planet as part of daily life. From small actions (turning off switches and gizmos) to lifestyle changes (eating less meat, consuming less stuff, and commuting differently), to larger actions (long term political activism, conscious investing, and integrating environmental impacts into every financial, social, and political transaction), protecting our planet first requires connection to our planet. With the help of social media, we can make matching commitments, transforming our individual habits into massive reform.

But our most important collective action — and it’s a warrior-scale action — is to convince the fossil fuel industry, its shareholders and political stakeholders that they must change their business models, and accept that they cannot sell (and we cannot burn) trillions of dollars of assets on their books. The world is already suffering too much at the behest of these profits. The first oil company that commits to divesting (stranding many of its assets) and rebuilding itself based on renewable energy will be the company that history remembers as worthy of its value. And governments have to eliminate their hundreds of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Instead, governments should support the complex and difficult economic transition away from fossil fuels. Only a great political and financial wind will make this happen.

In August 2015, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was as compelling as the Pope’s Encyclical. “But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans. But our attitude to these gifts has been short-sighted, and we have abused them. What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy?”

We can only save our magnificent planet and habitat if we turn our ingenuity to it with full commitment and radical cooperation as warriors for the future.

Veni, vidi, vigilo.

Why Brazil’s megadrought is a Wall Street failure

April 14th, 2015|

First published in the Guardian on April 10th, 2015

It’s hard to overestimate the appalling environmental and economic crisis that’s brewing in Brazil right now. The country is in the grip of a crippling megadrought – the result of pollution, deforestation and climate change – that deeply threatens its economy, society and environment. And the damage may be permanent: São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and industrial center, has begun rationing water and is discussing whether or not it will need to depopulate in the near future.

But if Brazil’s drought is shocking, Wall Street’s shortsighted approach to the country is appalling. Institutional investors’ reports on the country – the seventh largest economy in the world – cite worries about inflation, government cutbacks and low consumer confidence. But I could not find a single analysis that mentioned the existential threat facing the country: the megadrought that is expected to last decades and could destroy the Brazilian economy. Not a single analysis cited the brutal global impact that this will cause.

In other words, a host of institutional investors have found worrisome things to say about Brazil, but none seem to be aware of – or, at least, willing to face – the country’s greatest threat.

Attempting to separate economies from environment – as many of these analysts seem to do – is like trying to separate mind and body. It simply doesn’t work.

We will never repair our business models and government policies to conform to the real environmental constraints of the 21st century until we repair this fundamental flaw in our economic system. Investors and analysts regularly review a host of factors – including national debt, inflation, currency devaluation and other financial considerations – when they formulate their economic predictions. Their decision to omit the environment as a fundamental economic consideration is willfully ignorant and negligent.

Economies are cyclical, with periods of boom and bust. But a lack of water can cause permanent damage. São Paolo, which is one of the richest cities in the world, serves as the financial center for most of South America. The consequences of this drought are hard to calculate, but one can get an idea by imagining how water rationing in New York City – and the attendant population drop, public outcry and social instability – would affect the world’s economy.

This lack of foresight on the part of financial analysts is nothing new. They are overlooking this high risk situation, just as they did with the dotcom boom and bust, the subprime global meltdown, and a host of other financial crises. This willful delusion is also cyclical, and also a significant threat to the world’s economy.

I have worked with dozens of multinational corporations on transformative projects and initiatives that cut or eliminate waste, water usage, emissions and energy consumption. Every single company has had the same complaint: they do something spectacularly difficult and smart that enhances their company’s long-term financial security. But, when it comes time for the quarterly earnings calls with Wall Street, no one ever asks about it.

Executives are responsible for maintaining a stable supply chain, a predictable P&L, a respectable brand image, and a keen awareness of competition and regulations. Sustainable business innovation connects with all of these, and is one of the pillars needed to keep a modern financial house in order. Unfortunately, Wall Street doesn’t seem to notice.

This is as egregious as ignoring subprime debt in 2007. In India – the world’s fastest-growing economy and the darling of Wall Street – one out of six deaths each year is caused by air pollution. Factor in water and pesticide issues, and the death toll creeps higher. (I guess all that economic growth will help pay for all those health care costs.)

Just as in China, India’s wealthy people are moving their kids away from the big cities and centers of pollution. But clean air and water ought to be human rights, not luxuries reserved for the rich.

There are so many parables about the cost of money, from Midas who died of starvation and killed his beloved daughter when he valued nothing more than gold, to the New Testament, where Jesus teaches about the price of a rich man’s soul. But we don’t have to get religious to agree that without clean air, land and water, and a stable climate, we all suffer. And of course, as with everything else, the least privileged among us suffer most.

Wall Street investors: please put your money where your mouth is.

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    From antibiotics to fossil fuels: the inconvenient truth about sustainability

From antibiotics to fossil fuels: the inconvenient truth about sustainability

April 10th, 2015|

First published in the Guardian on April 6th, 2015

Humans are predictable. We routinely create extraordinary things and then disregard their impact and consequences because of our desire for convenience, comfort or profit. It’s easy to see why we’d want to take the shortsighted view: these pleasures and conveniences are compelling, at least until we realize they’re inflicting death by a thousand cuts on the world that we inhabit.

What do these extraordinary things look like? Well, antibiotics is a prime example. As someone who survived a dozen cases of childhood strep throat – not to mention surgery several months ago – I am eternally grateful for these drugs. Then again, while antibiotics saved my life after my surgery, the fear of an antibiotic-resistant infection propelled me to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible. These all-too-common infections, which are caused by our overuse of antibiotics, plague health care facilities around the world, driving up costs and mortality rates.

The problem extends well beyond hospitals: 80% of antibiotics in the US are used to induce rapid growth in healthy animals, and 95% of our meat is full of them. Meanwhile, unnecessary antibiotic use for common colds and respiratory infections also helps spur antibiotic-resistant infections.

The companies that produce and sell antibiotics are ignoring their collateral damage, dangers that they have known about for decades.

It’s time to sharpen our wits and use our intellect to overcome our basest instincts and reinvigorate our survival instinct. The only way companies will stop overselling these products is if we stop over-buying them.

Health-conscious consumers are already pressuring producers and retailers to eliminate antibiotics in their meat, and some of the biggest companies are listening. Tyson and Perdue are moving away from routine antibiotic use, Chik-Fil-A is cutting antibiotic-laden chicken from its menu, and Target stopped sourcing farmed salmon in 2010.

After McDonald’s committed last month to phasing out antibiotics in its chicken, it is likely that the whole industry will follow. These changes will increase the price of fish and chicken a bit, but they will also increase the effectiveness of antibiotics and decrease the scourge of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Consumers are also pushing for changes in medical protocols – and some doctors are listening and refusing to prescribe antibiotics as a default.

Antibiotics aren’t the only seemingly miraculous technology that has inflicted untold damage on the environment: since the 1940s, the pesticide and fertilizer industry has followed a similar trajectory. The original impulse to use vanguard science to help feed the world was a noble impulse, a phenomenal business strategy, and a seemingly brilliant solution to global hunger. Within 20 years, however, scientific evidence began to reveal the environmental implications of this agricultural revolution.

The rampant overuse of pesticides and fertilizers has endangered whole ecosystems, as evidenced in the dead zones in the world’s seas. Pesticides definitively contribute to cancer, developmental disabilities, and reproductive and hormone disruption.

Unfortunately, by the time we began to understand the impact of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, we had become accustomed to cheap, plentiful food, and our agricultural system had begun its transformation from small farms to industrial agribusiness. Today, although we know better, we continue to follow the current, dangerous business model, wherein businesses and consumers do not pay the real cost of the comfort, convenience, and profit of conventional agriculture.

Again, health-conscious consumers and pioneer businesses have led the way to a solution, pushing for organic agriculture, which is a rapidly growing sector of the food market. Meanwhile, small farmers are improving traditional technologies such as crop cover, crop rotation, and integrated pest management; in the process, they’re also revolutionizing yields and price models.

Organic products still cost more than conventional foods, but market growth has made the price differencefar less severe than it was a decade ago. The premium price is worth it: by dramatically reducing pesticides and fertilizers, we are using our brains to save our skins – partly because we understand that the socialized costs of these chemicals hits tax payers and families hard.

Fossil fuels are perhaps our deadliest addiction. When the oil industry began over a century ago, it was populated by determined, courageous, creative wildcatters, dreamers, businessmen and world-builders. They laid the foundation for the industrial revolution that fundamentally altered – and in many, unimaginable ways, benefitted – our lives.

But somewhere around 50 years into this historical odyssey, the consequences of this fossil fuel addiction began to dawn. Vast land areas and numerous bodies of water became filthy. Across the globe, climate change began to rear its ugly head. However, instead of recognizing their products’ shadow, this industry has been ignoring, obfuscating, repudiating and dis-informing about their products for half a century, just like the pharmaceutical and pesticide industries.

Consumers haven’t helped. In love with the convenience, comfort, and pleasures of cheap energy, we have largely objected to any increase in price or any attempt at rationing or rational usage. We have voted out of office the courageous politician who offered truthful and difficult solutions.

Clearly, breaking an addiction is not for wimps. So, today, even as the world flirts with climate chaos, the oil industry continues to pursue its new territories, from the Arctic to the Canadian tar sands, as if it were 1900 and we didn’t know better. And, while this industry still has its share of tenacious dreamers, its lobbying groups are ignoring its biggest opportunities for leading the 21st century’s inevitable energy revolution.

We need to harness the fossil fuel industry’s brilliance and grit to create the low-carbon energy revolution. This change of course is not for the faint of heart – over $20trn dollars of oil and gas reserves are already on the industry’s balance sheets, and most cannot be safely burned if we are to remain within climate limits. With today’s oil prices pegged at $50 per barrel, much of these reserves are already devalued because the cost of extraction exceeds the market price.

Again, there are consumers and businesses leading the way. Solar and wind power are no longer oddities and they both now compete with coal on price. Some businesses like NRG, the nation’s second largest electricity provider, are embracing their role in bringing renewables to their customers. But in the US, many utilities are fighting the explosion of rooftop solar because it threatens their current profits.

Instead of cleaving to this completely unsustainable business model, governments, utilities and coal companies need to map out a transition agenda that ensures the explosion of rooftop solar and protects only those businesses that advance a low-carbon and distributed energy future.

Progress doesn’t come easily. Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation”. The question is, having recognized these devils, will we find the will to exorcise them?

Annoying and persistent activists – consumers, businesses, patients, farmers, fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists – stand firm on unpopular beliefs and inconvenient truths. But, rather than following the current path of killing the messengers and ignoring the dire state of our environment and climate, we can chart a new course.

We can redefine comfort, convenience and profit. We can find respect for the riches and limitations of nature. We can use our intellect, overcome our baser instincts, and launch a sea change in the right direction.

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    Togetherness Interruptus: Civil Society in the Age of the Smartphone

Togetherness Interruptus: Civil Society in the Age of the Smartphone

December 22nd, 2014|

First published in The Huffington Post, December 12th, 2014

Every business and government speaks of “civil society” on a regular basis. It is the euphemism for engaging with the nonprofit world. But there is another meaning for the phrase “civil society.” It means being civil to one’s neighbors and strangers on the street, and nurturing a social environment — in real time and space, not on an electronic device. One of the most troubling default behaviors that we have recently come to accept is that most of us (myself included) spend less and less time staring into space and pondering our thoughts or the universe or imagining great romps with our beloveds. No, we’re looking at our phones which we clutch as we walk down the street, talking or texting obliviously while running into people and vehicles.

A recent study from the journal Science showed how far people will go to avoid sitting with their own thoughts:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

This is decidedly addictive behavior. And like all addictions, the addict is not the only victim. Smartphones create a terribly discourteous, antisocial, particularly uncivil environment in public spaces. Look around. Someone might need your help and you might want to offer it. Someone might be reading a book you would love to talk about. Someone is wearing an outfit that is intriguing, cool or beautiful. Architecture, street posters, buskers, amazing events, all abound.

But our smartphone keeps the world at bay. Recently, at a bus stop on Fifth Ave., three seats (for the elderly and infirm) were taken by two people who needed the seats and one 30-something woman enraptured by her phone as if it was her newborn. Directly in front of her was a woman who looked about 90 and another who looked about 75. Yet this young woman kept her seat because she had NO idea of her surroundings. I debated intervening, but I stood there while this very elderly woman was standing unnecessarily. I felt awful, but I had intervened in a similar situation on a bus the day before, and the father of the ten year old I had suggested relinquish his seat said to me, “Who are you, the civility police?”

If not each of us, then who?

On the bus and above-ground subways in the past week, I have heard in detail about….stock transactions, hospital/doctor problems of someone’s sister, food at restaurants and what’s for dinner (a dozen times), he did cheat, she didn’t cheat, she doesn’t love me, I do love him, tutoring prices, vacation plans, and other conversations too boring and annoying to recount. Talking in a whisper and/or covering your mouth is the exception and not the rule, which is utterly discourteous.

Father and son together. Father on phone (talking about job — trouble with a customer), and son on his game…with the sound on. In what universe is it considered acceptable to inflict their nerve-jangling electronic bells, whistles, bangs, onto everyone within hearing distance?

Smartphone abuse is not only rude, it’s dangerous. Walking down the streets of NYC, people are texting, looking at their phones and running into others because just as you cannot drive and text you cannot really walk and text either. I have personally saved two people’s lives from being killed as they walked in front of oncoming traffic while texting. I literally grabbed each of them and pulled them back from their ill fates.

All electronic devices are powerful hypnotics, perhaps most memorably when two Northwest pilots on their laptops were out of contact with air controllers for an hour and a half and overshot their destination by 150 miles – despite being pinged numerous times as fighter jets were being scrambled to intercept their plane. And new studies show increased danger and accidents for children, despite apparent adult supervision, as parents and caregivers are distracted from their kids by their smartphones. This is dangerous but also decidedly not quality time with children. These devices are incredibly seductive — and addictive.

It is insensitive and emotionally alienating to have your phone disrupt social, public and family settings — but it has become the norm. At restaurant tables everywhere, people have their smartphones out. And many many people check their messages/email/texts regularly in order to get that little dopamine hit. Yesterday afternoon on a train, the couple next to me were talking; she was speaking intimately about her recently departed grandmother. He left the conversation to read an incoming text, replied to it, and began talking about the text rather than Grandma. His wife was crestfallen that he wasn’t listening to her heartfelt grief. This man appeared to adore his wife, and did not intend to be hurtful. But he was.

Togetherness interruptus is bad for all of us. Be here now.

Aligning the rules of business and the laws of nature

October 2nd, 2014|

First published by the World Economic Forum

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan famously sang. You don’t need the UN secretary-general to know that climate change has arrived early – ahead of scientists’ most dire predictions. But the messages resounding from the global stage are encouraging. There is now a clarion call for radical change from vast numbers of political and business leaders. It almost feels as if we have finally reached a tipping point.

Leaders of business and government are beginning to connect economic prosperity with environmental stewardship and climate stability. This is the foundation for creating a low-carbon economy in the 21st century. Companies and governments that do not participate in this “solutionary” approach will find themselves on the wrong side of the balance sheet, as well as the wrong side of history.

Brilliantly, Ban Ki-moon has invited businesspeople and governments to announce joint transformative initiatives and I am heartily applauding the strong words emanating from the General Assembly floor, where speakers are acknowledging the severity and imminence of the climate crisis. These nations must be held to their words as they negotiate a new climate agreement over the coming year.

Positive signs abound. A few days ago, 347 investors from around the world, who manage $24 trillion in assets, announced their support for a strong UN climate deal in Paris 2015. The board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the heirs to the world’s first great oil fortune, just announced their divestment of fossil fuels from their portfolio. Many other corporations are announcing large-scale transformative projects and processes.

But we are deceiving ourselves if we think these fine gestures will deliver a low-carbon economy. Scientists estimate that we need to eliminate more than 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The role of business in fixing our environmental problems can’t be overstated, but a company here and a company there won’t even come close.

Eliminating fossil fuels from our everyday lives and huge business interests is a monumental task. We must replace them in our food, water and transportation systems, as well as our manufacturing and electricity generation. Untangling and changing these systems is for the sharp of mind and strong of heart. A price on carbon will affect everyone, especially nations that are just now attaining industrial-era wealth.

China is now investing $100 billion in Indian infrastructure. This is the moment when the growth of these two great nations can be tied to the long-term well-being of their peoples and industries. Both countries noted their desire for India to emulate China’s hyper-growth with this new infrastructure. But by its own estimate, in 2010, 3.5% of China’s GDP was caused by environmental degradation, and its air, water and food quality continue to worsen. Is this a good investment? A global price on carbon would help shape new infrastructure and lock in 50-year projects with 50-year paybacks. The clean stuff would come out ahead on all fronts — financial, environmental and social.

As an American, I acknowledge that my nation became wealthy while deferring the payments for its contribution to climate change; the bill is now due. It is partially the responsibility of the US to provide incentives for emerging economies to embed in their financial ledgers long-term consequences and costs. Developing large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure on American soil does not lower our financial or environmental debt; it makes a bad situation worse and sends a terrible signal to the rest of the world.

One (relatively) simple solution that would remedy our flawed accounting paradigm is to allow accelerated depreciation for green infrastructure and capital investments. This would allow the savings in energy, waste, water costs (and impacts) to be attached to the slightly higher costs of green infrastructure. The biggest polluters would no longer be able to make the biggest profits.

Extreme weather has become the new normal; we must make these new business rules the new normal as well.

As a group of humans coexisting on the planet, from the UN to the World Economic Forum, the regional planning commission in Bangkok to the school board in Sao Paolo, the International Accounting Standards Board to FIFA, all of us must find the courage to create a thriving and healthy economy in the 21st century.

We must align the rules of business with the laws of nature.


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    Why developed countries should subsidize a global price on carbon

Why developed countries should subsidize a global price on carbon

September 5th, 2014|

First published in the Guardian, August 26, 2014

“We demonstrated that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
– the late Republican senator Howard Baker (Tennessee), co-sponsor of the Clean Air Act of 1970

A wise Grenadian recently asked me this very clear question:

My country is poor and we recently discovered oil, which will make us richer. Why should this oil be restricted or more expensive to exploit when your nation’s oil boom paid none of its environmental expenses?

A Chinese high school student recently asked me this similarly clear question:

My country’s manufacturing base means that my family moved from abject poverty to the middle class, and in my nation, hundreds of millions of others have done the same. Why should this manufacturing be more expensive by having to pay a cost for carbon when your nation’s manufacturing boom did not?

I grew up in the1960s, a decade when my family, my New York City neighbors, and tens of millions of other Americans were catapulting from poverty into the middle class. It was a great feeling. For perhaps the first time in modern history, large swaths of our society had enough money to purchase homes, spend on surplus and luxurious foods, hire household help, take vacations and buy new stuff on a regular basis.

This social and economic mobility was the envy of much of the world. And I’m certain the accompanying optimism helped open our hearts and minds to the great human rights revolutions of the past 50 years.

There was a shadowy side to this extraordinary period in American manufacturing, consumption and innovation, of course. Deadly air pollution in Los Angeles killed or sickened tens of thousands in the 1940s. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire a dozen times in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, it was discovered that industrial solvents buried in the ground were causing rampant birth defects in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York.

American consumers and industries behaved as if the air, water and land were our inexhaustible dumping ground.

We largely still behave this way. But now most of our manufacturing occurs elsewhere, which only complicates understanding this un-virtuous circle. China manufactures most of our stuff – and we criticize China for the pollution this creates. But the only reason America’s air and water have become as clean as they are is because some visionary Democrats and Republicans (with the support of a burgeoning environmental movement) worked together in the 1970s to pass the Clean Air and Water acts, highlights of American legislative history.

Cleaning up our air and water pollution remain ongoing challenges, but at least there are legislative benchmarks for guidance and enforcement.

Today we must fight for a worldwide price on carbon just as Americans fought for restrictions on air and water pollution generations ago. This is the only way to level the international business playing field so the biggest polluter does not make the biggest profit.

There is no us and them when it comes to air, land and water. These basic elements of survival are all approaching their limits at just the same time as the next billion people are becoming new consumers and leaving poverty behind. Something’s gotta give.

Which takes us back to the thorny questions raised by my Grenadian and Chinese colleagues. Who’s gonna pay for the transition to a low-carbon economy? Those of us who caused today’s problems, or the billions of people whose regions are finally poised to rise out of poverty? This debate is part of what’s holding up a new United Nations climate treaty.

In December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is supposed to adopt a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012. Between now and then, nations will be jockeying for position on a variety of issues, perhaps most contentious of which is the Green Climate Fund.

This bucket of money is meant to be filled by nations already wealthy on centuries of greenhouse gas pollution, to fund low-carbon economy investments in India, Brazil, South Africa and other developing economies. This subsidy will empower these nations to sign on to greenhouse gas emissions cuts in a new global treaty, and will – it is hoped – enable their citizens to rise into the middle class without making global warming any worse. This fund is the major stumbling block to a signed global climate agreement.

I know this feels wrong to Americans in so many ways. Our middle class is being eviscerated and so many are seriously suffering. Our economic dominance is waning. The United States is no longer the preeminent world power. And we’re gonna help others compete?!

Well, yes, if we want to avoid climate chaos and survive with a habitable planet. Think of it as the environmental debt we are carrying – and the bill is due. Those of us who benefited from the industrial and technology revolutions must now sacrifice some of our wealth so that the next billion people can choose clean technology as they develop their economies. These payments will sound like stealing food from your children when they are debated on cable television and talk radio, but in reality will amount to a rounding error for the US government budget.

The world’s nations have passed several landmark treaties despite threats of economic chaos from industry. The Montreal Protocol banned chlorofluorocarbons and prevented a catastrophic hole in the ozone layer. The Biological Weapons Convention banned a whole class of weapons of mass destruction.

Certainly transparency and corruption must be addressed before the Green Climate Fund is viable. But progress on transparency just inspired Germany (which gets 74% of its energy from renewables) to commit $1bn to the fund.

Here’s the thing: the Green Climate Fund will recover its investments in short order. Clean technology will be cheaper in the long run for two reasons.

First, low-carbon technologies like wind and solar energies are rapidly decreasing in price and increasing in efficiency – at the same time that electric vehicles are exploiting smarter financial models, and farmers big and small are pursuing a low-carbon agricultural revolution.

Second, the cost of pollution-intensive technologies is staggering. Emergency services, spill clean up, illnesses, pipeline security, boom and bust economic cycles, marine dead zones and extreme weather – we already pay an exorbitant price for carbon. In 2011, a Harvard Medical School study found that while coal’s low price as an energy source seems like a bargain, burning coal actually costing the American economy $175bn to $523bn a year in pollution, lost tourism, climate change impacts, and health effects like premature deaths and cancer. That’s real money.

The US and the rest of the industrial nations got rich first and caused a big load of environmental trouble for the entire world. Now, as the rest of the world wants to get rich – who doesn’t? – we have to pay for the problems we’ve caused. The Green Climate Fund is the bitter pill that will make all of us healthier.

The United Nations has its time and place. I’d contend that when it comes to climate, now is both. The world’s nations can again do something great. We must find our political will to help make it so.

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    The cost of cancer: why health impacts belong on company balance sheets

The cost of cancer: why health impacts belong on company balance sheets

August 19th, 2014|

First published in the Guardian, August 18th, 2014

Like so many of us, I have personal experience with cancer. I’ve had it twice, and so have both of my parents, six aunts and numerous friends. Just last month, someone very close to me was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. These illnesses are more than just statistics. They require the patient, as well as their families and friends, to journey through a pretty broken medical system, and their emotional price is exorbitant.

My own cancer odyssey started about eight years ago and lasted two years. (I’ve been cancer-free for six years now and I’m doing fine, thanks). When I started feeling physically better, I felt the release of an emotional bottleneck. I went to a support group and each of the six people there told the same story: “I’m sure I got cancer for a reason and I just don’t know what it is yet.”

I responded, perhaps inappropriately: “You got cancer because a variety of companies, governments and shareholders decided that clean air, water and food were less important than their money.”

I’m sure everyone in that group was happy I never returned, but it was a great catharsis for me. At that moment, as an environmentalist working with business, my emotional self met my professional self on very clear terms. I realized we must begin including the environmental costs – including environment-related health costs – in every financial transaction.

Consider this: last year, the US spent $37bn on cancer drugs and over $100bn on cancer treatment alone. Those numbers don’t include the unreported and uncovered costs, such as nurses, acupuncture, psychotherapy, personal travel, supplements and caregivers’ expenses. I spent many thousands of dollars in such costs for each of my cancers, and that’s far from unusual. Of course, those numbers also don’t include the personal costs borne by families and individuals, nor the follow-on effects of cancer treatment in the form of future weaknesses, illnesses, lost wages and lower productivity.

I have grieved and tended too many friends who had cancer in their 30s and 40s, and feel absolutely certain that chemicals, drugs and hormones in the air, water and food play a role in causing this scourge. Reading about the cancer cluster of kids in Toms River, New Jersey, illustrates the difficulty of proving these connections, but for anyone reading the news or sitting by a sick bed, these connections are palpable – and science is getting closer to proving it.

Air pollution kills as many people every year as smoking does, according to Brigham Young University economist C Arden Pope III. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer lists 113 agents that are carcinogenic and 66 that likely cause cancer. These chemicals range from the familiar villains – such as tobacco, asbestos and formaldehyde – to the lesser-known fuchsine for magenta production and vinyl chloride used to make the ubiquitous PVC found in industrial pipes, plumbing, packaging and credit cards.

But external environmental and social costs – including health impacts – of these chemicals aren’t often considered in the financial equations that result in their use in many products today. The costs of cancer simply don’t show up in the balance sheets of the businesses that contribute to its prevalence.

GDP, for example, is one of the most important economic indicators in use. All the health care spending I mentioned earlier actually contributes to the GDP, showing up as a positive sign in the profit-and-loss-only model of economic health. When economic growth causes increased illness and healthcare costs, our measurements are missing some basics. It’s not always so great when the GDP goes up. A thriving economy needs a healthy society, not more cancer spending.

We need to construct a new financial ledger. To calculate true profit and loss, broader societal and environmental causes and effects need to be added into the equations. In other words, we need integrated reporting that includes the external environmental and social costs – including health impacts – currently not on the books.

There are signs that some businesses are starting to think about these costs, whether or not they’re including them in their financial statements. Take CVS Caremark, which earlier this year unilaterally decided to forgo $2bn in annual tobacco sales because of the negative health impacts. In a recent column in the Guardian, Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility at CVS Caremark, wrote: “What we saw was a health epidemic with 480,000 tobacco-related deaths each year, and a $300bn annual economic wallop attributed to smoking.” The company simply looked at the toll tobacco takes on society and – in a courageous move – decided cigarettes didn’t fit into the mission of a healthcare company.

But more needs to be done. Ounces of prevention, in this case, are worth thousands of pounds of cure. Reducing the environmental factors that contribute to cancer could have benefits that ripple across all business – transferring costs from a stressed and broken healthcare system to bolstering the quality of our food, water, clothing, indoor and outdoor air. That seems like a smarter use of our money.

Imagine if profit statements included the costs of illness attributable to the profits. The use of pesticides might be restricted to emergency circumstances and PVC piping would be replaced with nontoxic, greener alternatives.

This truer accounting system would lead to investment in cleaner agriculture and manufacturing, and end the taxes of carbon and pollution that we already pay for our current lifestyles.

Even if the overall costs end up being the same, I’d rather spend our money on cleaner industry and infrastructure instead of on chemotherapy and asthma inhalers. Wouldn’t you?

Biomimicry Lessons for Business on Triple Pundit

August 4th, 2014|

This article featuring Amy’s recent talk at a BiomimicryNYC event was originally published on Triple Pundit by Raz Godelnik:

How do we create a better future? How do we redesign our economic system to be more sustainable?

Exploring these and similar questions, a growing number of people look for inspiration from the greatest lab of all: Nature. This type of exploration already has a name (biomimicry), definition (“an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies”) and even an inspiring visionary leading the way (Janine Benyus).

It also has a growing number of followers, as I could see last week at an event titled “Biomimicry + the Regenerative Economy.” Organized by BiomimicryNYC, a network dedicated to fostering a community of nature-inspired practice in the New York City metro region, it took place at Impact Hub NYC with more than 100 attendees who came to learn more about aligning business with nature from two experts in this field: Amy Larkin and Katherine Collins.

… Amy Larkin, founder of Nature Means Business and author of “Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy,” was the first to go on stage. One of the main topics she focused on was harmonizing the laws of business with the laws of nature…

Read the rest of the article here

Radical cooperation is the only antidote to climate chaos

June 20th, 2014|

First published in the Guardian on June 20th, 2014

Throughout the 20th century, millions of people banded together in nonviolent revolutions across the globe to secure their freedom. From India to Czechoslovakia, South Africa to Poland, they declared their right to self-determination. Why, in the 21st century, are so few of us ready to fight together to secure our right to clean air and water?

To wake us from our fossil-fueled dreams, we need nothing less than radical cooperation.

Given the scope and importance of the conflict, it’s notable that many of the most poignant voices calling for a more holistic view of climate change are in fact battle-tested veterans of war. In a new report,National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change, an all-star array of retired US military brass weighs in, writing that “The potential security ramifications of global climate change should be serving as catalysts for cooperation and change. Instead, climate change impacts are already accelerating instability in vulnerable areas of the world and are serving as catalysts for conflict.”

What moves people to cooperative action? Environmental activists and scientists often ask how they can get Americans to care about climate change. And, on the other end of the spectrum, many business people are trying to encourage both their customers and Wall Street to work with them on solutions.

Meanwhile, those of us fighting to stave off climate chaos are working to send a palatable message, telling one another that we cannot scare people to death and that alarmism is ineffective. But watch The Weather Channel. Read the business news. Follow the agricultural commodity markets or your region’s farming news. Climate change’s high impact traumas and costs on people, planet and profits are already alarming. Scratch below the surface of anyone of any political stripe and the feeling is the same – something is not right.

Change is clearly called for, but our passive acceptance of extreme weather as the new normal has discouraged far too many of us from behaving outside of cultural norms. I recently spoke at a conference on National Security and Climate Change where government, military, academia, and civil society representatives explained the horrifying effects of climate change on global food, water and energy supplies. When I asked several presenters what they were doing to change the direction of their formidable institutions, the reply came, “Oh I can’t do anything radical”. But you just said “It’s an emergency”, I found myself thinking. Unfortunately, emergency or no, the cultures in these entrenched institutions accept inertia over action.

Instead of facing the music, most politicians and business people threaten consumers and citizens with dangerous economic repercussions unless we accelerate the extraction and exploitation of cheap American fossil fuels. Republican representative Bill Johnson of Ohio (Energy and Commerce Committee) pushes for the Keystone Pipeline and argues that the freedom to frack and drill anywhere in the US is the cornerstone of smart energy and economic policy. Meanwhile, even though it has an extremely low earthquake profile, his district had a recent quake linked by state geologists to oil and gas drilling. This connection between drilling and earthquakes is now beingmapped by the US Geological Survey.

Domestic oil and gas sound cheap until we add up the bills. Oil and gas extraction, transportation and combustion drive up the cost of maintaining emergency services, healthcare, infrastructure, insurance, water systems, habitats and agriculture. They drive up mortality and drive regional economies into the ground. These costs comprise the carbon tax that we are already paying. Those who resist a radical change in our energy infrastructure are willfully and wittingly leaving more of these bills to their kids.

There is no way to sugarcoat this story. It will cost real money to build a 21st century safe energy infrastructure. It will cost exponentially more money and devastation if we do not.

David Crane, CEO of NRG (one of the nations’ largest energy companies), recently wrote a shareholder letter that addresses his personal and corporate responsibility:

The day is coming when our children sit us down in our dotage, look us straight in the eye, with an acute sense of betrayal and disappointment in theirs, and whisper to us, “You knew… and you didn’t do anything about it. Why?” And for a long time, our string of excuses has run something like this: “We didn’t have the technology … it would have been ruinously expensive … the government didn’t make us do it …”

But now we have the technology – actually, the suite of technologies – and they are safe, reliable and affordable as well as sustainable … The time for action is now; we have run out of time for more excuses.

If the US president were to ask Americans to lower our energy usage by 20% in the next year, I am certain we could do it. Courageous cooperators are legion. They come in pin-striped suits, overalls, lab coats, nurse’s uniforms, skinny jeans, and aprons. They are found in classrooms, garage labs, farms, and even occasionally government offices. They are everywhere.

The world’s largest cities have already banded together through theC40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. But in the US, our leaders have not asked us to step up, nor is there federal coordination of wide-ranging efforts.

In 1989, 46 countries brought the Montreal Protocol into force (now ratified by 197 nations), pledging to eliminate CFCs that were burning a hole in the ozone. At the time, industry fought against that radical cooperation with much the same language that is being used today. The CEO of chemical giant Pennwalt talked of “economic chaos” if CFCs were phased out, and DuPont warned that “entire industries could fold”. None of this ensued. And if there were no Montreal Protocol, CFCs would have caused utter devastation.

Climate change is a similarly dire threat and the clock is ticking. Our last chance for a global deal – the UN Framework on Climate Change’s meeting in Paris in 2015 – is drawing near. The world’s scientists have weighed in clearly, stating that greenhouse gas emissions need to peak this decade, otherwise the stability of our climate and weather systems are in dire jeopardy.

Only a global treaty on climate that incentivizes a decarbonized economy can chart this course. Voluntary and good corporate actions will simply not suffice to reach the fundamental changes necessary. This climate treaty will only pass if the peoples and businesses of the world assure their governments that they support it. This is the radical cooperation needed to transition the world’s economy to a low-carbon future.

Fossil fuels and peace don’t mix

June 5th, 2014|

First published in the Guardian on June 4th, 2014.

Why doesn’t anyone do anything about the situation in Ukraine?

One reason is that Russia supplies one third of the European Union’s oil and gas. The EU, in turn, represents 20% of the world’s economy, and any precipitous rise in the energy prices they pay is a very scary proposition.

In other words, oil and gas are both the fueling impetus for Vladimir Putin’s current forays and the reason for subsequent global inaction.

Russia is hardly alone. On the other side of Asia, China is risking a hot war with Vietnam in order to plant an oil rig in disputed waters. No nations have come to Vietnam’s side. Meanwhile, Russia and China have just signed a $400bn deal for 30 years of natural gas supply and demand. This alliance creates an economic and defensive bloc that could limit the rest of the world’s move towards safe energy development.

China’s $400bn bet on natural gas added to its central role as the world’s top manufacturer and primary emerging market, create a conflict. If the world chooses to place a price on carbon, which is desperately needed, China and Russia now have an alliance against other economies that might want to incentivize safer renewable energies.

Some of the world’s great oil reserves are on land governed by repressive regimes and dictators, including the House of Saud, Vladimir Putin, Sudanese warlords and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The pipelines and ports to transport this oil go through lands of every geo-political leaning, from Canada, whose tar sands aim to serve the US, to Kazakhstan, whose pipeline to China is now being expanded.

Oil and gas wars (hot, cold and economic) will only intensify as at least six different nations, including Russia, lay claim to the Arctic oil reserves. Now that climate change is creating traversable Arctic waters and oil companies are negotiating for deep water drilling there, the likelihood of armed conflict has caused US Defense Secretary Hagel to create an Arctic Defense Strategy.

The companies that profit from extracting and selling fossil fuels have terrible environmental and safety records, with a long record of disasters that include Chevron, fined billions of dollars by an Ecuador court for pollution of the Amazon, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash spill in Tennessee, natural gas companies found to have contaminated the waters around the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, BP’s negligence in the Gulf of Mexico and more.

Some energy companies, especially in the US, have financed a global disinformation campaign regarding climate change and greenhouse gases that has slowed the wheels of real progress towards energy independence. Energy businesses that refuse to acknowledge their direct and indirect impact on climate change are compromising national – actually, global – security.

But we are full accomplices in this conspiracy of fools. Energy companies and their geo-political sponsors are only as powerful as we, their customers, allow them to be. We demand cheap natural resources and presume that we are entitled to cheap energy. Despite knowing better, we believe that we deserve to live with the convenience of kings (instant food, instant transport, instant delivery, instant stuff) at insanely cheap prices. And every day, advertisements confirm our sense of entitlement.

This notion of our own entitlement to cheap consumption is the fundamental fallacy of 21st century commerce. It has given too much power to tyrants, too much power to corrupt politicians, and too much power to business people of bad faith. It is robbing our children of a livable world, politically and environmentally.

It’s far too high a price.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of our fossil fuel consumption on the environment. Oil runoff from our consumption represents a greater percentage of marine pollution than transport and extraction combined, and energy from our buildings causes about 35% of North American greenhouse gas emissions.

Just as families might skip movies and dinners out to save for college, each of us can change our habits for the sake of those we love most. We can use less energy and fewer private cars, eat less meat, choose products that use dramatically less – or better, no – plastic (an oil derivative), demand that politicians and business people account for the costs of environmental damage, and accept the limitations of the carbon-constrained world we will live in for the foreseeable future.

If we do not make this transition, global instability, food and water shortages, mass migrations, hot wars and energy disruptions are certain. But despite what will surely be some extremely hard transitions, a new economic framework will yield resilient businesses, healthier citizens and safer nations.

Most importantly, we must incentivize every extant and future energy company, including today’s behemoths, to spend their extraordinary technological prowess, marketing genius, deep understanding of impossibly complex systems and money on finding our way out of this mess. I have met with senior executives in the oil industry who genuinely desire radical change. We must help them come out of the closet and lead their companies in a new direction.

When we talk about energy independence bolstering national security, here’s what it looks like: much more decentralized, clean energy sources – like solar and wind power – connected by a network of microgrids; fast, frequent and convenient mass transit and private transportation fueled by clean electricity; disposable goods replaced by well-made, well-sourced and well-manufactured goods that last; diets and agricultural practices that respect nature’s limitations as well as its bounty; an economy that reflects the environmental impact of every financial transaction; and cleaner air and water as a result of all of the above.

This is what it will take to achieve real national security. It’s the moonshot for the next decade and the Marshall Plan for restructuring the world and its economy.