A New Perspective on Our Climate
Tourism, infrastructure, electricity. What do all these have in common? They’re impacted by global warming. We like to think of global warming as ocean temperatures rising and more carbon dioxide in the air. That isn’t the whole truth. Our changing climate is at the root of many large issues, though the connection might have been lost. We started to focus on the problems that impacted us on a daily basis–ones we could immediately see and feel, ignoring their true cause.
The following is an excerpt from Mid-Course Correction Revisited by Ray C. Anderson & John A. Lanier. It has been adapted for the web.
One afternoon in the summer of 2004, I was visiting with Ray and Pat in their home. I do not remember the occasion, and I suppose we did not need an occasion, but I do remember the year clearly. Ray had given me a high school graduation gift—a trip to San Antonio, Texas, for the NCAA Final Four. We had traveled in early April, just the two of us, to cheer on our beloved Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in their last two college basketball games of the year.
I treasured the time we spent together that trip. We learned so much more about each other, and for the first time I was able to glimpse the depth of his passion for sustainability and Interface’s mountain climb. I believe that trip was the seed planting my own environmental ethos, which is perhaps why one question in particular had been nagging at me for weeks. Sitting in Ray and Pat’s living room, I got to ask it:
“If you could wave a magic wand and fix just one environmental challenge, what would it be?”
I will always remember how quickly he answered with these two words: “Global warming.”
Reflecting back on that long-ago conversation, I realize now just how correct Ray was. As he explained to me, global warming will impact the habitability of our planet. Certain regions will become too hot, too dry, or too submerged for humanity to continue living there. Such impacts make our warming planet a tremendous challenge.
Ray was also right for a more significant reason—global warming causes, amplifies, or is at least connected to nearly every other environmental challenge that we have. It is the ultimate “umbrella” issue. Consider biodiversity loss, for instance. Warming oceans are crippling coral reefs, the backbone of many aquatic ecosystems. At the same time, forest ecosystems are being decimated in the search for new agricultural land, not only releasing tons and tons of carbon dioxide in the process but also disrupting water cycles and both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat.
Take the need for clean water, as much of an environmental concern as it is a human concern. Global warming complicates this as well. As storms become more severe, we will see even more impact from flooding as it overwhelms city sewer systems, breaches coal ash ponds from power plants, sends factory farm runoff into waterways, and otherwise taints local water supplies. In wet regions where mosquito-borne diseases are common, increased rainfall due to global warming could create more breeding grounds for these insects.
With examples like these in mind, I want to ask you what might seem like a silly question: In a warming world, what will we feel? I assure you, I am not being flippant. I know the obvious answer, and certainly many of us on planet Earth will struggle with heat waves. On a deeper level, though, I hope you see that the answers to this question are incredibly broad and unsettling.
In a warming world, a single mother of two small children might feel hunger. Already struggling to make ends meet and with her air conditioner working overtime, perhaps her energy bills will force her to make the gut-wrenching choice between electricity and food.
In a warming world, an elderly man from an island nation might feel the anxiety of settling into a new life in a strange country. He and other climate refugees will be driven from their homes and native lands as sea levels rise. Wherever these unfortunate souls settle, I pray that they are welcomed, accepted, and supported by their new countrymates.
In a warming world, a farmer who has labored on her family’s lands for decades might feel fear. As weather patterns shift and her soils turn to dust, her prospects for economic opportunity simply blow away. How will she support her children when farming is all she has known?
Global warming is not only the most pressing environmental issue of our time—it is the most pressing human issue of our time.
People all across the planet will feel the impacts of global warming, and many already are. How right Ray was back in 2004, and how desperately I wish that he had had that magic wand.
The world of business and industry is not exempt from global warming’s transformative and destructive impact. This list, for instance, just skims the surface of how a warming world will challenge our economic system and the actors within it:
- How will the fashion industry respond when cotton crops routinely fail due to excessive heat? Costs will increase as the supply of cotton falls, and switching to alternative fiber types will also be more expensive as their demand increases.
- Similarly, are businesses in the food, beverage, and agriculture sectors prepared for shifting crop zones or for harvests being ruined by heat, drought, or extreme weather? Food is as much big business as it is human necessity in this modern world of ours.
- What will the insurance industry do as natural disasters increase in frequency and severity? Sure, they can raise rates to reflect higher risk factors, but there are limits to what people will pay. Eventually, customers will forgo insurance or move.
- Plenty of countries rely upon revenue from the tourism industry, which will have to adapt in a warming world. For instance, how will the coastal towns of Queensland, Australia, so reliant upon the majesty of the Great Barrier Reef, sustain themselves when the reef bleaches entirely?
- As global warming magnifies unrest in the destabilized countries of the world (likely due to more frequent droughts), what will the subsequent violence and mass migration do to the supply chains of all sorts of industries? The disruptions will manifest in many harmful ways.
It’s not difficult to imagine trillions of dollars at stake as global warming is felt in its myriad forms throughout the world’s industries. Still, despite the ominous clouds on the horizon, many businesses do not yet acknowledge how global warming will affect them.
Andrew Winston, as a consultant to large corporations on environmental issues, has witnessed this lack of foresight firsthand. “I have worked with hospitality companies and real estate companies,” he said, “but I haven’t seen any of these big companies with lots of assets do a systematic analysis of their coastal assets. They don’t stop and ask, ‘Should we really build a new resort in Miami Beach?’ I think the risk side gets a lot of attention, but I’m not sure that many companies and people have really thought it all through.”
It would be easy to assume that denial in the business community is the reason for its collective blind eye toward our climate. But I do not believe that is the case. While certain businesspeople might personally deny the scientific consensus on global warming being caused primarily by humanity, few if any global businesses take that position publicly. Even fossil fuel companies understand that the science is settled. So why is more climate action not being taken?
Joel Makower has a compelling answer to this question. “The problem across a lot of companies is that climate change is number four on the list of top three environmental problems they are facing,” he said. “They are dealing with resource constraints or the right to operate in communities or a consumer pushback about wastes or toxins or the lack of repairability of their product. At what point does climate become the number three, two, or one issue? That is not yet the case in most companies.”
The blind eye, it seems, arises from the short-term focus of the global economy.
Our warming planet, which has been sending us warning signals for many decades, still seems like a threat for the future to address. When a company is balancing the environmental concerns Joel listed with meeting payroll, conducting the next board meeting, evaluating a proposed acquisition, and ensuring compliance with a wide range of regulations, how can it be expected to worry about the climate? The solar panel manufacturers are taking care of that, right?
They are not, despite best efforts, because the challenge is too great for one sector to solve. With only a few rare exceptions, every business on Earth has a carbon footprint, meaning it is a net emitter of greenhouse gases as a result of its business operations. Those carbon footprints are adding thickness to the atmosphere, our planetary blanket. Just as with the blanket on your bed, the warmth will continue to increase over time. Those carbon footprints make business and industry complicit in the threat to our climate’s stability.
Blame, however, does a poor job of inspiring change. Moreover, castigating business and industry for their role in negatively changing our climate sets the wrong tone. It would suggest that our goal should be to simply “stop a bad thing”—basically the carbon loading of the atmosphere. The ultimate goal of such discourse is almost always to avoid climate catastrophe. I, too, want to avoid climate catastrophe, but I also want more than that. I want society to take the next step, evolving to a more just, equitable, prosperous, and resilient version of itself.
When we advocate for climate action, shouldn’t we aspire to more than simply avoiding catastrophe?
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