Global warming means tangible costs and real opportunities for the world’s largest corporations. But transforming costs into opportunities desperately needs quickening. What will it take for corporate behavior to reach a tipping point that induces governments to change?
A recent forum on energy policy and security at the American Museum of Natural History in New York made sense of these entwined issues, reflecting the urgency most Americans feel about global warming.
The event was sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council and broadcast on C-SPAN. Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, Ted Turner, the foundation’s principal donor, and former President Clinton exchanged views with audience members.
A financial adviser to pension funds noted that most corporate executives still believe global climate change has not risen to the threshold of prudent management, according to their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.
Clinton, freer to express his views in private life, said that it is time for corporate executives to embrace adaptation, to protect their businesses from disruptions looming on the horizon if carbon and other greenhouse gases are not quickly reduced.
Clinton harbors no bitterness that his administration’s initiatives were repeatedly defeated by energy corporations. It is no secret that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big energy producers invested heavily in message machinery to dispute the science of global climate change or that the election of President Bush gave fossil-fuel producers and marketers red-line authority to edit the nation’s energy and environmental policies.
We all own a few shares of the planet. This fact doesn’t matter on the living-room couch where my teenage boys grudgingly yielded space as I sat down recently to read the annual report and proxy statement of Exxon Mobil while they bickered over the TV remote control.
Notwithstanding its blizzard of green advertisements, ExxonMobil has been the most uncompromising of large international energy producers pitted against the science of global warming.
In this year’s proxy statement, Chairman Lee Raymond and directors recommended against a shareholder resolution by the Christian Brothers Investment Services, asking the corporation to make available its research data about gaps in climate science to defend its position on global warming—kind of like producing the missing 181/2 minutes in the Nixon tapes.
Of course it is easy for me to say—I’ve never been responsible for managing a balance sheet and income statement showing $25 billion in profit in a single year. It’s hard to argue that’s not success, especially at a point in history when peak oil production may be over or quickly approaching, according to some experts.
But another argument can be made: Corporations that throttle energy alternatives while wringing massive profits from diminishing oil supplies are scavengers circling around Western civilization.
At the energy-policy forum, Clinton pointed out that tax credits for consumers and businesses that quickly move the United States from our dependency on fossil fuels is a “no brainer,” and deserves broad bipartisan support.
Whatever funds are lost to government treasuries by tax credits related to transforming energy supply and consumption will be more than compensated. The savings will grant us freedom from the risks of fossil fuels and despotic regimes that supply oil.
Voters can impress these points on public officials and demand accountability at election time.
Investors in mutual or pension funds should write to the managers of funds they own and ask them to rigorously support investment in corporations whose management counts a sustainable energy future equal to the importance of quarterly profits.
It is time for Wall Street managers to put in bold print the message to executives of international corporations that prudent management requires attention to global climate change.
There is good news. Recently, General Electric, with business lines extending through every facet of bringing good things to life, doubled its commitment to research and products for a new-energy future. The company chairman and chief executive officer, Jeffrey Immelt, called on Congress to set “clear milestones” to reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
As for ExxonMobil, I wish the company well. I am an investor who expects it to profitably supply energy to the world long after its assets producing fossil fuels have been sold or written off.
But it is hard to avoid the feeling that today’s corporate executives—insulated from the problems of America’s workers by annual compensations in the tens of millions of dollars—are a little like squirrels hoarding acorns before the climate sharply changes.