Reflecting on Earth Day & Climate Change

Last week, celebrations and gatherings took place around the world for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Many events focused on the personal decisions that individuals can make to help protect the environment. As I worked with community development financial institutions, I could easily write about the environmental benefits of banking locally. Instead, though, I want to focus on the intersection of the economy, investors, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Around the world, people are debating how to regulate emissions to stop climate change. On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans are engaged in an on going battle. I believe, strongly, that no widely accepted proposal that has been offered to date goes nearly far enough to create the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. Much of the ongoing debate, on both sides, talks instead about balancing the economic costs of regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Both sides in the political debate talk about ensuring that we don’t hurt our economy while implementing policies to prevent climate change. Companies, on the other hand, are spending millions of dollars lobbying to prevent a real, comprehensive climate-change and energy bill, often claiming that climate change doesn’t exist or is man-made.

In our work with shareholder advocates like CERES, the Responsible Endowments Coalition often encounters companies saying that they are trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but that any major change should be left up to the government, while at the same time lobbying against regulation. Many companies also say that they are prepared for the risks that are posed by climate change.

The first statement may be true. The latter is patently false. Almost no company is prepared for the risks of climate change. Similar to the country itself, they may be prepared for climate change regulation, but not the dramatic outcomes of climate change itself.

The risk of climate change, like that of nuclear weapons, is existential in nature. We may spend decades talking about addressing climate change without actually taking action. There is a chance that we will be fine, but there is a good chance that we will not.

A False Choice

One thing is crystal clear, as with company risks, the choice between our economy and preventing climate change is a false one. While some can say that regulation may hurt the economy, the truth is that no regulation at all will kill it, and, there is a slim chance, also kill every one of us.

Almost everyone that cares about these issues hopes that the science proves wrong. But most evidence points in the opposite direction. While the effects are currently unknown, climate change is a risk we cannot ignore. Like we do in many things from government spending to waste, we risk mortgaging our future generations.

The only real choice is to move to a clean energy economy, based primarily on incredible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whether we regulate or not, we face major changes to our economy. We must not make a bet on ten years of positive economic growth in exchange for the future of the planet. We also must not count on our ability to overcome the effects of climate change and leave many with less resource than us, in the Global South and elsewhere, to suffer.

At risk of being cliché, following the words of one of the founders of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson, who called for a “nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment.” Remember the original spirit of Earth Day. Don’t just go outside. Rise up and take a stand against the corporations fighting to continue polluting and fight for meaningful legislative action now.

Join the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Energy Action Coalition, and all of its member groups as we work to make changes that will protect our people and our planet for years to come.

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