The Value of Pursuing a Rational Middle in Polarized Times

rational-middleAt Energy Dialogues’ North American Gas Forum last month, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel moderated by Gregory Kallenberg of the Rational Middle. While the panel pre-dated the presidential election, the topic of constructive engagement through rational discourse is now more important than ever.

We explored how environmental groups, industry, and other stakeholders need to come together to rationally discuss and collaboratively act on the challenges of meeting rising energy demand while addressing real and growing environmental risks.

The still principally fossil-based energy system, which includes natural gas, is not the only cause of climate change, but it is the largest. And so a range of stakeholders, from protesters holding signs, to investors with a long term interest in the future of natural gas, to industry consumers, are looking with increasing criticism at fossil fuels. That was true before the election, and it’s true today. They’re asking: How can we reconcile the environment we want to protect for the future with the traditional energy and feedstock resources we are using now?

Unfortunately, industry, when pressed with concerns and asked to act, has often come up short. For example, with precious few exceptions, oil and natural gas companies have declined to set quantitative methane reduction targets – of their own choosing, and for their own product. And they have declined to join their counterparts’ support for a 2 degree limit on temperature rise. Too often, industry has failed to engage with the real concerns of their customers and communities.

But there’s a better way.

As Sarah Sandberg, from the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said on the panel, “You’re either at the table or on the menu.” As panelist Michael Crothers from Shell observed, industry must engage directly and responsively with the legitimate climate concerns of the general public. And they’re right.

At Environmental Defense Fund, we work to create opportunities for diverse stakeholders to come to the table and have the conversations that feed the actions – whether establishing public policy, catalyzing technology innovation, or making best practice standard practice – to address environmental challenges and protect our future.

There have been bright spots of industry leadership, like energy companies joining the table in Colorado to help craft the first methane regulations, or Shell Canada supporting Alberta’s new climate strategy, including a methane goal backed by regulations. Unfortunately, such constructive engagements have been the exception to the rule. All too often, industry’s response to environmental concerns and opportunities has amounted to “Just Say No”.

A better response? “Just Say How.” For example:

  • How will operators demonstrate that they hear and are addressing in practical terms, the air and groundwater pollution concerns of the 15 million Americans who live within a mile of a well?
  • How will industry leaders acknowledge and finally engage on public policy to reduce their contribution to climate change?
  • How will they make unnecessary methane emissions a thing of the past, by finding and fixing leaks?
  • How will the companies that do step up and lead on these issues maximize the competitive advantage of being cleaner companies in a world that demands it?

Let’s hope industry can take the real issues head on and start showing how we can make positive changes by working together. Pressure on industry is not going away, and rational engagement can help cut a productive path through polarization.

America knows better: Addressing climate change is good business

President-elect Donald Trump made claims of his own business smarts a cornerstone of his campaign. Vote for him, the logic went, and send a first-rate businessman to the Oval Office to apply business acumen to make America great. Unfortunately, Trump’s actions to date on climate and energy – notably charging a climate change denier with leading the EPA transition and signaling desire to abandon the historic Paris climate accords – send a message of business obliviousness.

In contrast, a smart business approach would embrace tackling greenhouse gas emissions and supporting clean energy. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Create American jobs – The opportunity to create new American jobs in the transition to clean energy is tremendous. There are now more jobs in solar energy than in coal mining, and the number of solar jobs has grown more than 20 percent in each of the last three years. States like Florida and Nevada are bountiful in sun and can contribute to American energy self-sufficiency.Moreover, just as smart action to nurture domestic clean energy can accelerate jobs in the renewable sector, there are jobs on the line helping the oil and gas industry reduce its air pollution in a cost effective way. Environmental Defense Fund found that there are over 70 American firms employing Americans to help keep potent methane emissions in natural gas pipelines and out of the atmosphere. These jobs, thriving in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, are mainly small business and above average wages – exactly what we all want to see more of. Of course, it’s a competitive global economy, and taking our foot off the pedal in creating green jobs could well cede the space to others like China, which already leads the United States in clean energy investment. Whatever a politician’s personal views on climate change, it is undeniable that global demand is growing for clean energy solutions. Growing demand means growing commercial opportunity for the United States in terms of innovation and exports. But only if we seize it.
  1. Listen to leading American businesses – Savvy business people listen to each other. So Mr. Trump should be interested to learn that 154 American businesses supported the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge in the run-up to the Paris climate accords. These businesses are a part of the backbone of the American economy, employing nearly 11 million people across all 50 states, with a then market capitalization of over $7 trillion. Participating companies of particular interest: 21st Century Fox, Dupont, Wal-Mart, even a name that will be familiar to any casino magnate – MGM Resorts.These companies not only voiced support for a strong Paris outcome, they committed to increase their low-carbon investments in line with the direction of America’s leadership. Pulling out the rug from American businesses investing in low-carbon would send a destabilizing signal to the market. More recently, 365 companies including Unilever, Intel, General Mills and others reinforced that “implementing the Paris Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy and prosperity to all”. In sum, the overwhelming voice of businesses who have weighed in on the Paris talks are supportive of climate action. This business groundswell cannot be ignored. Nor should Trump ignore his own prior signing of a 2009 letter that failure to act on climate and the environment would cause “catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”
  1. It hits home – Continued American leadership on climate change can help mitigate physical risks to some of Mr. Trump’s most cherished investments, for example the Mar-a-Lago golf club in Palm Beach. NOAA found that “tidal flooding is increasing in frequency within the U.S. coastal communities due to sea level rise from climate change and local land subsidence.”Just a week before the election, the Palm Beach Daily News reported that the local Shore Protection Board unanimously recommended a six-figure “coastal vulnerability evaluation” as flooding has remained long after high tide in certain cases.
  1. Voters want clean energy – One of many things that will change for Donald Trump is that going from CEO to President means having a boss – actually about 300 of million of them. A recent Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans worry “a fair amount” or “a great deal” about climate change, an increase from last year, and including 84% of Democrats, 64% of independents, and 40% of Republicans. Clean energy is also wildly popular, with over 80% of Americans saying they support increased wind and solar, according to a recent Pew Poll.

Early on the campaign trail, Donald Trump often used his association with his alma mater, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, as Exhibit A in establishing his business smarts. Political leaders including Mr. Trump must learn from experts like Wharton’s Professor Eric Orts, who noted that moving away from President Obama’s climate change polices would come with stiff costs.

From missing out on job creation to ignoring business leaders who have studied the issue and have a stake in its resolution, and from fueling risk to Trump’s own business interests to overlooking voter desires, the case is clear that the costs are stiff indeed. Climate action is good business, and the smart money says it’s time to stay the course.

Why the Food Movement is Alive and Well

silverware 2 up closeMark Bittman’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Let’s Make Food Issues Real,” is a grim assessment of the current state of the food movement – in fact, he questions whether a food movement exists at all.

Bittman states that the lack of major change to government food policies means the food movement is not winning. “I’ll believe there’s a food movement when Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are forced to talk directly about food issues,” Bittman writes.

I’ll take that bet. With the drought in California threatening the nation’s produce and the other impacts climate change pose to our food supply, I think it’s likely that the next group of presidential candidates will discuss food issues on the campaign trail.

But even if politicians take up the banner of the food movement, new legislation should not be the sole indicator of success. Food companies are increasingly making changes to their products, practices, and sourcing in response to consumer demand. State policies and federal agency priorities are also shifting. Read more

Summer Heat Brings Industry Call for Climate Deal

Andrew Hutson photo

As I write this blog, it’s hot outside.  I mean really hot.  At 97 degrees today here in the North Carolina Piedmont – with a heat index of 100 degrees – it’s thirteen degrees above the average high for June.

Summers have been getting hotter here, as they have in most parts of the world, since I moved to the South from my native Michigan fifteen years ago.  And the weather has gotten weirder. Way weirder.  Too much rain at times, not enough at others.  Hot when it should be cold, cold when it should be hot.  Bigger storms. You get the picture… you’re experiencing it too.

Yet, somehow, I’m hopeful.

Read more

Changing the Methane Numbers Game

Adding to the drumbeat for action on the supercharged climate pollutant methane, Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series recently spotlighted methane emissions leaking from America’s oil and natural gas infrastructure.

YOLD_well_photo

One theme of the May 19 episode hinged on a numbers question: Just how much methane is getting out? This question, a common one in the methane arena, refers to the national methane leakage rate for the entire oil and gas supply chain.

Various numbers, as low as 1 percent, were suggested for the national average with 4 percent, 11 percent and even 17 percent reported by scientific studies in some oil-and-gas producing regions. The problem is, it’s the wrong question.

We should stop fixating the debate on just how bad the problem is, when we know there is a problem and we can address it with confidence today.

Read more

Treasure Hunting for Gigatons

While on her way to present at the Conference Board Business and Sustainability Conference, Gwen Ruta's flight ran into weather and she got rerouted to Harrisburg, PA. Her misfortune was my luck as I got to present her slides and participate in a great conversation about what companies are already doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The thrust of Gwen's presentation is that we can actually make money addressing the first 20% or so of the climate change problem. These 4 to 5 gigatons of "low hanging emissions" come from energy inefficiencies that actually cost firms money. A sizable chunk of the opportunity lies in two areas where we know we can have big savings – buildings and corporate fleets. Read more

And We're Off: Launch of the EDF Innovation Exchange

I confess, it was the title in the job posting that caught my eye first – Director, Innovation Exchange for Environmental Defense Fund. I wanted a business card that said that.

Reading the actual job description didn't hurt either. I'm a "big thinker with a solid track record" who can "build a new initiative that will inspire, inform and engage Fortune 1000 companies in reducing their environmental footprint" right? What could be better than spending my days building a human network, thinking about "innovation," focusing on environment issues, working with influential businesses and doing it for a well respected non-profit?

However, the real clincher has been getting to know the Corporate Partnerships team inside of EDF, the group I work most closely with. These folks are good. Of course, they are smart, dedicated, imaginative and (bonus!) fun to work with. But even better, they've been producing solid results for years. Read more