UN calls on private sector to protect vulnerable communities

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UN calls on private sector to protect vulnerable communities

Typhoon photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

"But let us again be clear that we are witnessing ever more frequent, extreme weather events, and the poor and vulnerable are already paying the price."

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, closed COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland -- which took place Nov. 11 to 22 -- with these harrowing words. Figueres puts a fine point on a key element within UN climate negotiations that have direct implications for the private sector.

We are witnessing the early stages of a new normal in terms of climate impacts, and an increasingly public discussion regarding how we best prepare, who pays for "climate resilience," and how we address the needs of poor and vulnerable populations most in harm's way. Addressing these challenges will require the private sector to drive innovation toward problems that are still emerging, to help people with little money to spend.

Key questions to ask

For corporate sustainability practioners, trying to determine what to do about climate change can be daunting. Questions abound, from "How material will climate impacts be on my value chain over the next five years?" to "How might severe weather events affect key customers -- and related sales?" 

There’s no doubt that assessing the risk of climate change is a wise business move. But a broader approach will be needed if we want to fully address climate impacts while protecting economic prosperity and the world’s most vulnerable in the decades to come. For firms striving toward “next-generation” sustainability leadership, another question should be asked: “Considering our corporate values, what are the ethical and moral considerations of climate change, and what do they compel us to do?"

It's critical that this question be answered in the context of product development and business-model innovation. How many times have we seen a “new” product hit the shelves, only to realize that while it may be “different” or “better,” it’s essentially just a tweak at the edge? 

The value of innovation

A warming world with escalating climate impacts demands that we redefine "different" and "better" within the context of extended sustainability leadership [PDF]. Using this framework, "different" points toward new products, services and business models that add value while minimizing externalities. "Better" means cleaner, more efficient, more socially conscious products and services. For better or worse, in many circumstances disruptive innovations are needed not just to capture market share, but to protect and save human life.

True corporate leadership will be needed to champion pilot projects and spearhead collaborative opportunities both within and across industries. Certainly a number of products and services are designed to help the poor and vulnerable cope with climate impacts -- from interesting mobile apps that assist rural farmers to IT-networked water "ATMs" in urban slums. These initiatives should serve as inspiring launchpads for additional endeavors, proving that values-driven innovation can harness private-sector resources to tackle incredibly vexing societal issues.

Photo of Typhoon Haiyan after passing through the Philippines by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr