Policy Matters

What does business want from climate action?

climate action
Shutterstockcarlos castilla
Political opponents of climate action claim to be protecting the business community, so we have to speak up even louder for ourselves.

December saw the completion of the COP21 conference in Paris, a two-week affair designed to yield a strong, international climate deal that would limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius — the most, many scientists say, we can afford before climate change begins truly to wreak havoc.

For longtime climate-watchers, this was a fairly nerve-wracking meeting, especially because the track records of some large emitters — such as the United States.

The US doesn’t have a terrific track record with environmental agreements. While the Clinton administration signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, it was never ratified by the Senate, and Bill Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, quickly announced he was opposed to the treaty. For this conference, however, President Barack Obama threw his full support behind a deal from the beginning, even traveling to Paris to speak at the opening of the conference.

Still, making a deal when you’re negotiating with nearly 200 other countries was a tall order. And that’s before you get into what will have to happen now that a deal was actually reached — including how domestic politics here could come into play.

Well, if recent action is any indication, things could get tricky — and all because of a misguided interpretation of what business wants when it comes to climate change.

No takebacks

Instead of making an effort to cut emissions, invest in clean energy or support climate adaptation measures, opponents have been doing the opposite — they’re trying to block the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the carbon reductions it offers.

We’ve written before about the Clean Power Plan, specifically about how it gives states a great amount of flexibility in how to meet carbon reduction goals (including more renewable energy and energy efficiency), and how it has the support of nearly two-thirds of small business owners, according to national, scientific polling released by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) last year.

Unfortunately, opponents are taking the opposite tack. Rather than passing legislation to do any of those, Congress has focused on passing resolutions that attempt to block the Clean Power Plan from going forward. While those have little to no chance of becoming law thanks to Obama’s veto pen, they take up time that could be spent on more forward-thinking policy solutions.

Meanwhile, 29 states have joined a case to overturn the Clean Power Plan in the federal courts. This tactic has had more success — the Supreme Court recently placed a stay on the rule, meaning the EPA cannot move forward on implementing it while the case proceeds. The DC Circuit Court is expected to take up the case June 2; from there, it could reach the Supreme Court. (That body is, of course, still dealing with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia; practically speaking, if the court deadlocks 4-4, the lower court decision would stand.)

A journey of a thousand miles ...

A major point of contention for critics is that the Clean Power Plan does not require congressional action, leading to the argument that the president is illegally circumventing Congress. (That is not, it should be noted, a universal view.)

Obviously, any climate action is better than none. But as difficult as it can be, there is actually a lot of upside to going through Congress as oposed to implementing a new rule.

For one thing, legislation can go much farther in how much of an impact it has on the climate. The Clean Power Plan relies on the already-passed Clean Air Act, which gives the EPA authority to regulate air pollutants — but all it can do is set limits, and if necessary, require emissions cuts from power plants in states that don’t come up with a plan to meet reductions goals. (States, as mentioned before, have a lot more tools they can use if they create their own plans.)

Congress, meanwhile, could pass a carbon tax, which dramatically could cut emissions and steer the revenues towards tax cuts, rebates or research and development for clean energy. It could appropriate funding to increase our nation’s use of renewable energy sources, or adapt to climate threats such as rising sea levels.

What business can do

There’s a clear economic case for all of these things, and they could go considerably farther than the Clean Power Plan could — not just in terms of addressing climate change, but also better positioning us for strong economic growth well into the future. At the very least, Congress, and the attorneys general filing this lawsuit, should let the Clean Power Plan move forward because continuing this fight will be nothing but bad news for the economy.

But to overcome entrenched opposition, the business community — the group opponents of climate action claim to be protecting — have to speak up for strong climate action. 

And make no mistake, business is looking for action on climate change — and what we saw at COP21 proves it. ASBC, along with the Environmental Entrepreneurs, released a statement featuring companies such as Ben and Jerry’s and Ideal Energy calling on Congress to let a final COP21 deal stand; dozens more business owners signed onto an ASBC letter (PDF) to Congress asking them to let negotiators work.

For all the talk about how climate action will bankrupt the economy, consider this: According to polling from ASBC, more than half of all business owners think climate change adversely will affect their business — and one in five say it already has.

And as far as the idea that climate change isn’t real? Well, even ExxonMobil, a company that has run into some criticism for allegedly hiding the risks of climate change from the public, now agrees it’s real.

These events, in Paris and Washington, may not seem linked, but they make clear just how difficult climate action will be if businesses don’t step up. At COP21, we’ve seen businesses step up and call for carbon pricing. Business groups likewise have called on Congress to let the Clean Power Plan move forward (PDF).

This is all welcome news, but recent moves in Congress and the courts show just how much louder the business community will have to speak on this issue. We’ve written before about the importance of businesses supporting climate policies but as this round of negotiations has shown, businesses also need to be ready to defend the gains we’ve already made.