Charting the Climate Course for the Next U.S. President

Charting the Climate Course for the Next U.S. President

In December 2007, world leaders gathered on the Indonesian island of Bali to try and work out a global course of action to address the climate crisis, after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. During the Bali summit, the United States government took a substantial amount of heat for its failure to join with the rest of the world on climate action.

Representatives from European governments threatened to boycott President Bush's proposed climate talks this year, Al Gore said the U.S. has been the major roadblock to any progress on the issue, and leaders from developing nations said that if it won't lead, the U.S. should at least get out of the way and stop hindering progress.

Just prior to the summit, the University of Colorado's School of Public Affairs launched the Presidential Climate Action Project. The initiative is chaired by former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and Ray Anderson, founder of Interface. The group released a plan designed to get the next president of the United States to take serious action against climate change in his or her first 100 days in office.

I spoke with Ray Anderson, long a leader in the corporate sustainability movement, about the project.

Matthew Wheeland: Ray, thanks very much for joining us this morning. We're here to talk about the Presidential Climate Action Project, which is a new announcement you guys made earlier this week, or, I guess last week that aims to get the next U.S. president on board with climate change and how to fight it right off the bat.

Is the political situation in the U.S. is so hopeless that people are willing to throw their hands in the air and wait until the White House changes hands a year from now?

RA: I don't think it's so much that things are just terrible in Washington. I do believe, though, that the next president of the United States, whoever that is, really does need to hit the ground running on this subject. It seems to me that the Bush Administration has sort of painted itself into a corner where it's very difficult for them to move without losing a lot of face. So, we need a fresh start.

And the next president -- Republican, Democrat, independent; it makes no difference, really -- does need to get on the case here, and what we've done through the Presidential Climate Action Project is create a 100-day action plan that the president can take in reasonable confidence.

It has been well researched that the legal basis for the president to do what needs to be done, and with a little bit of vetting, should be able to move right out on the subject, and heaven knows the United States needs to be part of the solution, instead of continuing to be a major part of the problem.

MW: And I want to ask you about the project itself. I looked at the report, and it's incredibly thorough. I mean, it's almost 200 pages and it covers almost every aspect of the American economy and environmental issues. So, will you just give us a thumbnail sketch of what the project is proposing?

RA: A key proposal is to establish a cap-and-auction system. That is, to auction off the limitations and to create a market-driven mechanism to put a price on carbon. To begin to internalize that externality and create a real price for carbon. And then it's very important that the revenues generated from the auction be channeled to support the changes that have to be made to replace the obsolescent industries.

Another one is basically ending the federal subsidies on the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries and redirecting those subsidies to the new technologies. We clearly want to reduce all consumptions as quickly as we can to stop financing terrorism with oil revenue, and we want the federal government itself to commit to becoming a carbon neutral enterprise.

And it certainly can do that in its buildings because the codification through the U.S. Green Building Council already exists, and the American Institute for Architects have weighed in on this subject to, to set their goal for building. So, it's lots happening in the building area that can be pressed still further.

You know, the title of this whole effort here is called Security, Opportunity and Stewardship. Sort of an SOS, and we toyed a good bit with the final S, whether it should be Stewardship or Sustainability, or Sacred Trust, and we ended up with Stewardship. So, Security, Opportunity and Stewardship are the battle cry for this new revolution.

And, you know, I really believe that it will create jobs in great abundance that do not exist today, as the industry goes through this transformation to the cleaner, greener technologies and products.

MW: So, have you had any briefings with candidates?

RA: I personally have not, but I do know that various members of the PCAP Advisory Board have their entrée into various campaigns and those have been utilized. To what extent I really do not know.

RA: I do know that every campaign has been notified, though, of the existence of this, and has been told that we're ready and willing to weigh in.

MW: It seems like every campaign is addressing climate change at least to some extent -- that it's on the radar, it's just a matter of talking about these specific goals.

RA: I think almost every candidate has acknowledged the program and acknowledged, and proposed some semblance of a solution to the problem. We've not seen anybody come out with anything nearly as comprehensive as the PCAP.

MW: And, it actually seems like you're combining all of the different proposals I've seen out there that look at energy efficiency and green job creation at fuel economy, one that's fairly new...

RA: If we've left anything out, it's by accident, because we've done our very best to be as thorough as we can.

MW: Let's talk about how this project is going to affect business as a whole, because I think that is one of the big issues that you hear about a lot: companies saying this is going to drag down the economy, to cost jobs. But this may all just be a lack creative thinking on the part of business. So, how will this project affect business as a whole? And maybe a good place to start is you telling us what brought you to this project.

RA: If I can offer my own company as a case in point, and perhaps it's the reason I am involved in the project, because Interface has been an exemplary company in pursuit of zero environmental impact. We're at negative-90 percent right now on greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 1996 baseline, and that is an absolute tonnage. During that same time, the business has grown by over 50 percent and profits have increased also by something like 86 percent.

So, the business case has become crystal clear to me, and to the people at Interface. Our costs are down, not up, because we very aggressively pursued the elimination of waste from the very beginning and we set very high standards for what we mean by eliminating waste. And in the process, we saved enough money there to pay for every other innovation that we made in the company, including all the R&D and the capital investments, and process improvements.

Everything paid for by waste elimination. So, we're at negative-90 percent in absolute tonnage in greenhouse gas emissions, and then on the other environmental fronts, water usage is down 79 percent, against this baseline, and soon, and we're bringing on renewable materials now to the extent of 20 percent of our raw material is coming from renewable sources, and the goal is 100 percent.

So, we're moving as a company towards zero, absolute zero impact on the environment, which means the elimination of greenhouse gases completely. So, that's what I bring to the table, account of it exists, it must be possible mentality. This is not a one size fits all, obviously, every individual company's gotta figure its own path out, this path to sustainability.

I really do believe that when the innovative juices begin to flow, with this kind of an objective, a firmly established objective, just eliminate greenhouse gases, that American industry will find enormous opportunity in that. So, our costs are down, not up, our products are the best they've ever been because sustainable design has opened up this wellspring of innovation within our company. Our people are motivated, galvanized, really around this shared higher purpose of sustainability, and the goodwill of the marketplace has been exceedingly rewarding to us.

Our customers love us for what we're doing, and I really believe this case exists for any industrial company. It's a matter of getting a clear vision of what this really means, and beginning to move in a credible, demonstrable, measurable way and then the positive feedback loops begin to kick in, and it becomes clearly the smart thing to do just as much as it's the right thing to do. Now, that is our experience, and I believe that experience is transferable.

MW: Yeah, and I have to say that Interface is one of the most inspiring examples of this. That for many, many years before this was on anyone's radar, your company was out in front on all of these things. One question that keeps occurring to me is how many, how, which of these kinds of climate or environmental solutions will need to come from the federal government or from international policies or the legislative side, as opposed to those being developed by the private sector or at least developed in cooperation with the private sector.

RA: Right. I personal think the government's role is to get the incentives right, and to get ride of the perverse subsidies, and one of our recommendations is that perverse subsidies be terminated and the subsidies to the more mature energy industries, the fossil fuel, the nuclear energy in those - if their subsidies evolve, it should be directed towards the renewable technologies. The low carbon and no carbon fuels, and spur the innovative process.

I think governments single most powerful role here is to get the incentive right, and it can do that with an enlightened taxation policy. It can certainly do it by getting the subsidies right.

MW: Is your feeling that once the government gets these incentives right, or gets the goals put in place in a fairly concrete manner that the private sector will be able to rise to the challenge?

RA: Well, I certainly believe the capability is there, and the capacity is there to rise to the challenge. I can't say for certain the willpower is there, but that would seem to me to be the key ingredient.

MW: The reason I ask is that another project I'm working on right now is looking at packaging use by companies, and something I keep hearing over and over across sectors is how Wal-Mart's new sustainable packaging project has basically made the entire packaging industry take stock of what it's doing and how it can do it better. Is this sort of a model of what you see could happen across industry?

RA: We began 13 years ago, because our customers were asking us what's your company doing for the environment. Well, today, Wal-Mart is asking it's suppliers, the 62,000 companies that comprise its supply chain, what's your company doing for the environment. In effect, that's what is happening, and Lee Scott has sent a ripple through the industrial world that's becoming a tsunami for change, and that's exactly what has to happen even on a larger scale.

You know that when Jeffrey Immelt at General Electric commits his company that doubling its R&D in clean technologies with the expectation of doubling its revenues, he's not doing it out of altruistic motivation; he's doing it because his customers have told him this is what we want. This is where we gotta go. So, Jeff, get with it. And I think GE is surprising itself, perhaps, with its success of its Ecomagination Program.

MW: Just one last question: after 15 years or more pioneering green business practices at Interface, do you still feel like you're an outlier in this field, or have enough companies taking on serious sustainability goals that you feel like you're back amongst the middle of the pack?

RA: Matt, I believe that this, the conversation in boardrooms all over American, now, maybe even around the world, it's safe to say, that in the conversation in boardrooms around the world the subject is number one on the list of issues that have to be addressed is this issue of climate change. Now that did not exist from 13 years ago when we began our own journey, and it seems to me that within the last two or three years, the subject has just jumped onto people's radarscopes.

I think Hurricane Katrina set the stage for that, or helped set the stage. I think Vice President Gore's movie, his book, and his own speeches have done a lot to raise awareness, and I'm always reminded of Deepak Chopra's words that people are really doing the best they can given their level of awareness. So, this is all about increasing awareness, and when people are more aware, they will do the right thing. They will, and there's another bumper sticker slogan that you see from time to time: when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

And it's important, it really is important for the American people in particular to get on this case and let their government know where they want their government to go. When the people lead, then the leaders will follow. You see it happening already in Washington. What we want to do is accelerate the process through executive action by the next president.

MW: All right Ray, thank you so much for your time. It's been great talking with you.

RA: Always a pleasure, Matt, thank you.

Matthew Wheeland is the managing editor of GreenBiz.