5 top climate challenges for Capitol Hill — and how business can help

5 top climate challenges for Capitol Hill — and how business can help

Business plays a critical role in helping to change the climate conversation on Capitol Hill.

The politics of climate change are muddy, but businesses can play an important role in cleansing the conversation, according to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in his keynote address Tuesday at the 2015 Climate Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.  

It's up to business and government to work together to come up with climate change solutions and build a more sustainable and resilient future.

In this vein, forward-thinking leaders from business, government, academia and the non-profit community congregated at the nation’s capital this week to explore energy- and climate-related solutions, introduce new opportunities for collaboration and provide support to leaders taking action on climate change.

The conference aims to address climate change through policy, innovation and business solutions. Here are five key takeaways:

1. Failing to tackle climate action is a ‘radical risk’ to the economy

Politicians continue to quarrel over the cost of climate action, but the social and economic costs of inaction could be even higher, Rubin said. Extreme weather events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inflicted several tens of billions of dollars in economic damage, and taxpayers pick up the brunt of the tab.

Governments at the federal, state and local level must begin thinking about about “climate costs” in terms of “climate investments,” said Entergy’s Jeff Williams during a break-out session. He explained that, for example, if a port closes for 90 days after a climate disaster, this could cost billions of dollars — as opposed to a much lower proactive investment in strengthening port resiliency.

Encouragingly, many municipalities already realize this. Although budget issues still tend to trump all others, the growing realization of the mounting costs of climate change is compelling cities to invest in climate resilience now, rather than pay more after disaster strikes.

2. Business can help bring resiliency to the forefront

Climate change is often treated as a “back burner” political issue because of a widespread misconception that its effects won’t be felt until far into the future, Rubin pointed out. Despite a growing awareness of climate threat, there is a conspicuous lack of a sense of urgency to address it.

Rubin said business people, as community leaders, should “assemble the convinced” and work to sway those still skeptical of climate change’s impending economic peril.

This can be strengthened even further by making the business case for sustainability and resiliency as means of mitigating climate impacts on the economy. Rubin noted one such effort, the Risky Business Project, which focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate.

3. Big Data can be a double-edged sword

Big Data has unlocked countless opportunities for measuring and communicating climate impacts, as well as innovating to address them. However, just as good data can lead to good decisions, bad data can lead to bad ones, Rubin warned.

One common mistake that often leads to bad decisions comes from looking at climate data in the aggregate, said Next Generation’s Kate Gordon during a break-out session.

In the United States, for example, the situation doesn’t look so bad when looking at national climate science data. However, it’s a different story when the data is divided by region — the southern U.S. in particular is facing pronounced climate risks. Similarly, while extreme weather events are significant, so are global trends, Gordon said.

One effective strategy for making better decisions based on climate science data is to constantly “zoom in and zoom out” to maintain an informed perspective on micro and macro climate data.

Another major data-related problem stems from the fact that most policymakers and city planners aren’t scientists, said San Francisco’s David Behar during a break-out session. This makes it difficult to translate climate data into what he called “actionable science.” Tackling this issue, San Francisco has visualized esoteric climate data in the form of satellite data models to show sea level rise decades into the future, which policymakers and citizens easily can understand.

4. Collaboration is key

Climate change presents challenges too great for any single government, business or organization to take on alone — that is why collaboration is needed across the board. This was seen when Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed individual utilities, said National Grid’s Mike McCallen during a break-out session, which resulted in regional and national partnerships to more effectively respond to future climate disasters.

Cities and counties are also banding together to strengthen their collective climate resiliency. Fort Lauderdale’s Susanne Torriente said her city has helped form a regional collaboration of four counties and 10 cities to pool resources and create cohesive plans for climate resilience and mitigation.

5. Public policies set the climate resiliency agenda

Private capital is not a substitute for public investment in climate resilient infrastructure, said Sally Smyth from the White House National Economic Council. That is why President Barack Obama launched the Build America Investment Initiative, which brings together a dozen federal agencies under the auspices of the Department of Transportation to deliver climate resilient transportation and infrastructure projects. Smyth said there is a strong business case for state and local government, as well as private stakeholders, to invest in infrastructure predevelopment.

During a break-out session on scaling clean energy solutions, Standard & Poor’s Trevor d’Olier-Lees said utilities have a clear advantage in today’s regulatory environment because traditional utilities are more certain investments. However, this may change as the costs of solar and wind power decrease, and some utilities are actually embracing clean energy and microgrids in certain regions because they are more cost-effective. But utilities will not change until government regulations do, d’Olier-Lees said.