Is business our last great hope on climate change?

As I sit here writing this article, it has started raining again here in London. No surprises there, you might think. But even by soggy British standards, this summer has been extreme — the wettest for a century, meteorologists say. Communities in the north of England are under several feet of water, for the second time in less than three years.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, North America was until recently sweltering in a lengthy heat wave that has resulted in an estimated 82 deaths, while scientists report that the extent of polar ice melt this year has broken all records.

With mounting signs of a changing climate such as these, anyone trying to identify which issue should be at the heart of a company’s sustainability strategy -- and looking for clues as to where citizen and consumer expectations are headed -- might have expected public concern to be on the rise. But this does not appear to be the case.

GlobeScan has been tracking public concern about climate change since the late 1990s. Polling representative samples of adults across the developed and developing world, we ask people to say how much of a problem they think climate change is, along with a range of other environmental issues.

Fifteen years ago, climate change was a second-tier environmental concern in the public’s mind. People ranked it a long way behind immediately visible and tangible problems, such as water and air pollution, as well as other seemingly more concrete threats. For example, in 1998, 50 percent of people across our tracking countries felt climate change was a very serious issue, 60 percent felt the loss of biodiversity was very serious, and 64 percent felt the same way about resource depletion.

In the years that followed, however, climate change rose up the media and political agenda, and public concern started to rise. By the middle of the last decade, our tracking indicated that it had largely caught up with other environmental worries. Initiatives like Sir Nicholas Stern’s review here in the UK seemed to indicate that a political head of steam was building around the issue. The intergovernmental summit in Copenhagen was billed as the global community’s big chance to change course.

But the dynamic had already begun to shift again. The global economic boom came to a screeching halt in 2007 and public concern on climate reached a plateau. The Copenhagen summit, instead of being the catalyst for radical economic and political change that many had hoped, dissolved amid recriminations and accusations of bad faith, without a viable plan for containing the impacts of climate change.

Next page: From Copenhagen to China