Business School

Obama and the Business of Climate Change

January 29, 2014

In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program responds to the president’s remarks on climate change and the environment. 

I have become a single-issue voter. It may not be best for democracy, but I have come to measure all actions through the lens of whether we are doing everything possible to address climate change. For the record, I used to be a two-issue voter — but that was before I gave up on doing anything about our addiction to guns.

So it was heartening during last night’s State of the Union address, to have the president address my single issue with the strong belief that we can both make progress, and that we don’t need the legislature to take the next steps. What Obama calls the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy is working, and, as he said, “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades.”

Energy independence is a good thing, as is the abundance of natural gas that is filling the gaps, but that is not the same as addressing climate change. It’s part of the answer, and it clearly fits into “all of the above.” But reliance on natural gas is not a passing grade on the president’s hope that “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy” that we can answer with a resounding “yes, we did.”

The president also talked about the business sector, and plans to work with the industry “to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities.” In this respect, we got some good news last week. The coalition of silence that has put the idea of pricing carbon in deep freeze is finally starting to melt away. 

Last week, the inevitable began to happen. Business began to turn on itself. I believe that is the first step towards common sense on climate policy. Not all businesses are the same, or face the same risks, have the same costs or interests at heart, but until now, business executives have been reluctant to speak to an issue, regardless of its long term importance, if it is going to hurt their brethren in the short haul. In other words, IBM doesn’t speak out on the need for a price on carbon — even if it is a critical step in spurring innovation and sound economic choices, as long as its buddies in the Business Roundtable still hope to confuse the science and thereby avoid the inevitable.

That coalition started to crumble last week. The New York Times mined the division in the ranks in a story that illuminates the climate costs of ruptured supply chains and untenable business risks — all of which undermine the argument that the costs of reducing reliance on carbon are too high to bear.

The other area the president points to is local initiative, and in that respect, one of the hardest working people in this business lives in Aspen, Colorado, which happens to be the home town of one the flagship Aspen Institute campus. 

Auden Schendler, an executive at the Aspen Skiing Company, is a relentless crusader for addressing climate change. He has the audacity to speak to an issue that most residents of Aspen wish would just go away, given the likelihood that skiing is a dying industry in an American West contending with the drought that is destined to get worse. 

Schendler reminds us of the wicked truth: “If we want to solve climate change, we have to break some stuff,” he said in this month’s Men’s Journal article by Nathaniel Rich. “We’re going to fracture alliances. We’re going to have to start doing some difficult things. And those things are going to hurt.” 

Here’s to hoping the president is willing to break some stuff on the issue that I care the most about.