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Six ways businesses view climate change

Stemming climate change cannot be accomplished without the involvement of the private sector. How do most businesses think about this task? Here are six prevalent mindsets.

It’s easy to cast a wide net when referring to the role of the private sector in addressing climate change. One line of argument holds that "business" is responsible for climate change, and that we must end business’s domination of the economic system to make progress on climate change.

Another line of argument holds that the private sector is our best hope for a stable climate, because policy-makers have not been able to adequately address the issue. These two visions of "business and climate change" could hardly be more different.

Of course there is no more a single business view of climate change than there is a single public view of climate change. The Yale Project on Climate Communications has identified and tracks six distinct subsets of the American public and their climate beliefs, ranging from "alarmed" to "dismissive." Knowing which of these "Six Americas" an individual belongs to tells you something about the kinds of communication strategies likely to be most effective for that person.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent mental model for how business decision-makers think about climate change. That makes it difficult to assess the direction of the "business and climate change" conversation. It’s also a challenge to determine what impacts business initiatives and commitments likely will have on climate outcomes.

A simple typology of private-sector climate change thinking is illustrated below:

  1. Decision-makers who see their company’s future as fundamentally threatened by any climate policy that substantially would slow climate change. This perspective can encourage decision-makers to be skeptical of or even deny climate science, or to jump directly to the "we’ve always adapted, we’ll adapt again" storyline made famous by Exxon’s Rex Tillerson.
  2. Decision-makers who aren’t part of the "business and climate change" conversation. This group includes many small and medium-sized companies who don’t have the benefit of dedicated environmental or planning staff and whose decision-makers have limited knowledge of climate change topics.
  3. Decision-makers who recognize climate change as a societal problem, but don’t see it as a serious business problem. This might be because they perceive climate change as too far in the future to pose a physical threat and aggressive climate policy as too unlikely to really worry about. This group includes many large companies. Examples:
    • In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett wrote: "As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries."
    • In a personal conversation, an electric utility CEO made three points about climate risk:
      • Electricity is too important a commodity for policy-makers to adopt policies that would be disruptive to the industry.
      • If policy-makers did adopt policies requiring large-scale changes to utilities’ transmission and generation systems, regulated utilities would receive their normal rate of return for the new spending and do just fine.
      • If truly disruptive climate policy were adopted, and if utilities were not made whole, it still wouldn’t pose a serious management problem because the company’s competitors would be similarly disadvantaged.
    • As noted off-camera by one electric utility CEO after giving a speech arguing strongly for climate policy, "I can say whatever I want since it’s never going to happen."
  4. Decision-makers who approach climate change as a business issue to be addressed through corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. These companies may engage in climate change conversations and commit to climate change initiatives as part of their CSR portfolio, but don’t see climate change as particularly important to their business model. These companies may even continue to support opposition to climate policies and measures through trade associations.
  5. Decision-makers in sectors likely to benefit from climate policy leading to an accelerated transition to a low-carbon economy. This group includes many renewable-energy companies and decision-makers who are nevertheless reluctant to take a strong advocacy position on climate change. They may see renewable energy as a winner with or without aggressive climate policy, and worry that taking a strong advocacy position on such a politically contentious topic could damage their business.
  6. Decision-makers who see themselves as being on the front lines of efforts to address climate change. These decision-makers may have had a personal epiphany of some kind, what the late Interface CEO Ray Anderson referred to as his "spear to the chest" moment after reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce to prepare for an upcoming speech to employees. Perhaps the decision-maker — by virtue of age or other background variable — takes climate change and a business leadership role for granted. These decision-makers are probably the most likely to advocate for strong climate policy, incorporate as B-Corps and promote new economic models such as the circular economy.

How are business decision-makers distributed across these "Six Business Americas"? Is that distribution shifting significantly? A simple reading of the business climate literature in the lead-up to the December 2015 Conference of the Parties in Paris could easily lead one to believe that Business Americas Nos. 3 and 4 have shrunk dramatically in favor of explosive growth in Business America No. 6. But is that really true, and what would explain the shift?

We need to move away from thinking about "the" business community and using essentially the same messaging to communicate with all private-sector decision-makers. What do decision-makers in each grouping think about climate change? How do they perceive their role in addressing climate change? Can business decision-makers turn into a powerful force for climate change advocacy?

If so, which decision-makers might move from one Business America segment to another, and how is that best accomplished? Whether communicating climate risk issues, risk management issues or climate advocacy solutions, climate messaging needs to reflect the existence of multiple Business Americas.

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