This climate moment

Taking Care of Business

by Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor

I’m writing this en route to Washington, D.C., to speak this week at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting. My charge: Headline a breakfast hosted by the Indian technology giant Tech Mahindra to talk about the intersection of business, technology and climate change.

I’ve titled my talk, “The Climate Change Opportunity.”

It’s certainly a weird time to be talking up the nearly unlimited markets to be found in a low-carbon, digitally driven, circular economy. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a torrent of unsettling headlines about the growing climate crisis.

A sampling: “Rising heat from climate change threatens crop yields,” “Climate may force millions to move,” “Climate change could lead to threefold increase in powerful storms,” “Climate change will shrink U.S. economy and kill thousands,” “Banks fear climate change will render homes uninsurable,” “Climate change already a health emergency, say experts.”

Just a sampling, as I said. And all of these since the middle of November.

Meanwhile, the family of nations is gathering in Katowice, Poland, for COP24, the 2018 edition of an annual series of convenings to forge an international response to climate change – you know, the one responsible for the 2016 Paris Agreement. The conversations there this week and next will be colored by the fact that several countries are rethinking their national strategies to address climate change — or, in the case of Brazil, are planning to reprise and revitalize some decidedly detrimental practices — at the same time that the theme of COP24 is about “stepping up” and deepening one’s commitment.

Add to that the American president doubling down on his doubts about whether climate change is actually a thing, and it’s difficult to recall a time when our climate reality seemed so dire.

So, why am I regaling a roomful of corporate bigwigs about the climate “opportunity”?

Because that opportunity is real. It’s staring us in the face. It’s here and now. It’s massive. And we have no other choice but to forge ahead.

We’ve been covering these opportunities relentlessly in the pages of, and in our events, webcasts and other convenings — mostly notably, at our annual VERGE conference. For many, if not most, in sustainability, it’s a given: The convergence of technologies — blockchain, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, advanced materials, synthetic biology and others — alongside the growing market shifts and imperatives — connected vehicles, intelligent buildings, smart cities, distributed manufacturing, clean energy, the sharing economy, the electrification of everything — equals an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent our world, and to make money doing it.

Few of these trends and technologies have emerged strictly because they are climate solutions. Most are part of the natural order of technological evolution, the inexorable march of progress best articulated by Moore’s Law. Few are “clean technologies” in the classic sense. They are just … technologies.

And that’s part of what makes them compelling to a roomful of CEOs. Taken on at sufficient scale, these trends and technologies stand to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions — perhaps even remove carbon from the atmosphere — in the process of creating the next generation of buildings, transportation networks, cities, food and water systems and the things we buy (or, perhaps, in a near-term circular future, have access to instead of owning).

That is, we can fix the climate while serving our customers and shareholder.

I know: it’s awfully simplistic and more than a little Pollyannish to think that technology can lead us out of this mess. It can’t — at least not on its own. It’ll take more than microprocessors and market forces to drive the level and speed of change that’s needed. Moreover, some of these technologies could make matters worse before they get better. (See: blockchain.)

And much of the work by companies will be slow and incremental, insufficient to the magnitude of the challenge or the urgency of the moment.

Still, there’s power in spreading knowledge and hope, and I plan to seize the moment to help a group of business executives better understand and embrace the opportunity before them — before all of us — to remake our world in a way that is resilient, regenerative, just and sustainable. To point out that, during a time of growing business risk and uncertainty, there is a path forward that can align business success with societal well-being.

And to make it abundantly clear that we won’t likely pass this way again.

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