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The Swerve in Climate Change Depends on Innovation Too

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 3, 2014 10:27:16 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

A classmate from business school emailed me last week to set me straight on climateCalifornia salmon change. His argument was “extreme opinions about things that naturally vary are probably wrong” and supported his stance with three arguments:

1) Malthus predicted the end of the world’s ability to feed itself in 1798.

2) In the 70’s, oil was projected to cost (in constant dollars) $200/bbl, whereas the current price is about $80, or after inflation, less than in 1980.

3) California was going to run out of salmon – it’s having abundant seasons.

My classmate’s opinions were formed watching severe weather growing up in Florida, working in the oil industry, and, for the last 27 years, as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. He’s smart and thoughtful. He understands risk. How could our opinions on climate change be so opposed?

Once again, the battle turns out to be filled with irony. What saved us from each of the predicted disasters was not that the predictions were wrong, but that we changed the set course through innovation, a skill through which my classmate makes his living. Had we stayed on the trajectory we were on without innovation, the alarmists would actually have been correct.

Malthus raised the specter of mass starvation but failed to account for the response to his predictions — innovations in machinery and fertilizers — as well as the growth in the workforce. Recent scholars such as Ester Boserup augmented Malthus’ theory, adding that whenever the population threatens to exceed the food supply, people find ways to increase the production of food. The predictions were followed by visible evidence of food shortages, which drove innovation and altered Malthus’ trajectory.

Oil companies were predicted to run out of oil based on trends evident in the 1950s. Shell Engineer M. King Hubbert introduced the peak oil curve, causing great consternation among fellow geologists and oil companies and eventually the public as well. But technological advances made drilling in secondary sites economical. Since then, public pressure has energized political will to open areas previously not available for oil exploration. US oil production in 2012 was the highest in our history. (Paradoxically, that success energized the renewable energy movement, which could make oil as an energy source obsolete.)

My classmate’s third example, salmon in California, experienced this same process. Environmentalists warned of impending doom; experience on the ground amid fishermen supported dire predictions. Salmon stock began dwindling in the 1950s then crashed in 2008. By 2011, only 1% of the salmon remained. Public pressure moved government and resource managers to take steps to restore both water and habitat for Chinook salmon, “innovating” California’s hatchery and conservation programs. The salmon population rebounded.

Innovation altered the course of my classmate’s alarmist scenarios, and it’s exciting to see how innovators are beginning to alter the course of climate change as well. Entrepreneur Elon Musk with his Tesla electric car, solar and battery initiatives is one example; successful airline executive Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, is investing in renewable energy projects for his jet fuel and his Caribbean venture.

Innovators, businesses, governments and public opinion come together to create adaptations that will shift a trend away from disaster. As described in an excellent New York Times op-ed piece by Robert Jay Lifton, this shift or “swerve” is a “major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly.”  Lifton compares the climate change swerve that’s happening now to the nuclear swerve that shifted us during the Reagan era from a nuclear build-up to the non-proliferation treaty of 1986.

In both cases, Lifton says, experience, economics and ethics coalesced. Climate change economics have shifted practices in every industry, perhaps most notably in insurance, agriculture, and the military. Secondly, and for the first time, most Americans are experiencing the kind of extreme weather that my classmate saw in subtropical Florida. Now, the ethics component is gaining widespread public acceptance too. As Lifton says,

“People (who) came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren.”

The questions my classmate posed are important to address. Just as we need competitors to create industries and innovation, we need “rationalists,” as my classmate believes himself to be, to keep us “alarmists” engaged.

Photo courtesy of jcookfisher via Flickr cc.

Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 9,100+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 9,100+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 339 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in climate change, Uncategorized, venture capitalist, M. King Hubbert, Malthus, oil production, Robert Jay Lifton, innovation, non-proliferation treaty, peak oil, The Swerve, California salmon, Carol Pierson Holding, Chinook Salmon, Ester Boserup

When Orcas Are Shareholders

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 24, 2011 9:11:23 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

Merging Environmentalism & Business Process


By Carol Pierson Holding


This month, the Orca Whale was added to the constituencies fighting for the West Coast’s beloved but increasingly degraded Chinook Salmon population. This after 60 people spent 4 years developing a plan to protect the Chinook in Puget Sound. The compelling goal, “to lead the region toward a legacy of healthy, harvestable salmon and improved water quality for future generations,” brought together citizens and scientists; community, business, and environmental groups; and local elected officials and public agency staff. And, just two months ago, their science-based plan was ratified by 24 local governments.                               

Now the plan must be re-formulated.

It turns out that the Orca, an endangered species itself, requires enormous quantities of Chinook salmon to survive. Far more than previously estimated when the agreements were conceived. NOAA  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has asked Washington state and Indian tribes that fish in the area to submit a two-year plan for insuring that the endangered whales have enough salmon to sustain themselves.

The backlash has already started. "You can't bring back Orcas just on the backs of fishermen," Joel Kawahara, who fishes commercially in Washington and Alaska, told UPI. "What about improving habitat? What about the effects of the dams on the Columbia River?" The constituents who worked so long and so hard might have to come together again to deal with NOAA’s new requirements.

What strikes me about this issue is that, by injecting a new environmental parameter, the Orcas are adding the pressure needed for a true breakthrough— a new paradigm modeled on environmental processes rather than capitalist structure. Think of the progress we’ve made in less than 25 years to balance the needs of man and nature. First, US business, with the help and prodding of the insurance industry, figured out how to integrate environmental risk into business projections. This was the first successful monetization of the cost of bad behavior toward the environment, but it relied completely on the capitalist model, on boiling everything to down to its economic value.

Then business learned to negotiate with opposing groups, even radical activists like Greenpeace, and still make a profit. To the monetary value of good environmental practices was added the value of relationships, which both diffuse activists and protect or even grow brand loyalty with those customers who are environmentalists themselves.

Now the Orca in Puget Sound add another twist: environmental preservation requires not just a broad cross-sector effort but also an on-going effort. Because the physical world is so interdependent and always changing, an environmental agreement or “fix” is never permanent. Instead business must create structures for a permanent relationship with nature, just as it has with human impediments; structures that insure constant interaction.

So how does the concerned citizen/consumer/investor judge which companies are most prepared to manage the on-going environmental challenge? The attributes measured by CSRHUB are the best way to look at a company’s current behavior. But for those looking to predict the future, it may be most useful to look for evidence of organizational structures for on-going collective action on the environment.

Look for companies that have teams in place for permanent environmental interaction, councils on which senior executives participate led by skilled negotiators. Once common, these councils are disappearing as the economic malaise continues. Use your consumer and investor power to force companies to fund these councils. They establish the importance of relationships — with humans and nature — to succeeding in business. And we save the whales too.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Alaska, CSR, fisheries, fishing, NOAA, preservation, Puget Sound, Uncategorized, UPI, Washington, insurance industry, Orca Whale, Orcinus Orca, sustainability, Joel Kawahara, business, Carol Pierson Holding, Chinook Salmon, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, environment, environmental, Greenpeace, Killer Whale

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