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Climate Change Commitments: Investments Yes, Philanthropy Perhaps

By Tom Watson on September 27, 20072 Comments

Commitment is the widest of words here at the Clinton Global Initiative. A "commitment" can range from a small philanthropic gift or the start of a modest foundation to a global investment running to ten figures and more. Nowhere is this flexible definition more in evidence – or perhaps more appropriate – than in the area of climate change and ecology.

Because of the collision of political worlds just outside of CGI – the coming Bali meetings on global warming, the lukewarm response to President Bush’s 15-country conference on climate change, and this week’s United Nations summit on global warming – commitments to the environment have dominated some of the  proceedings here.

From actor Brad Pitt and eco-warrior Al Gore to teen singer Shakira, Monaco’s Prince Albert and media mogul Ted Turner, global warming has been on everyone’s lips – and it’s amazing to see how, in just a year, almost all skepticism on the science of climate change has been erased, especially on the part of the capitalists and bankers.

"I see New Orleans as a microcosm for the global problem," said Pitt. "If there’s anyone who understands the repercussions of climate change it’s the people of the Gulf Coast."

Turner called global warming this "the big story of our lives."

"Outside of a nuclear exchange, global warming is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced," he said. "Businessmen are human beings – they’re fathers and grandfathers just like all the rest of us – and we do care what happens to the world."

But are the commitments being announced at this year’s CGI any more "philanthropy" than, say, last year’s headline-inducing announcement by Sir Richard Branson to invest $3 billion in alternative fuels? And perhaps it’s not organized philanthropy that can solve the problem, or organize nations to agree in any case.

After committing his company to investing between $4 and $5 billion in debt and equity to underwrite the development of alternative energy sources and renewable fuels in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank was straightforward:

"This is part of our belief in running our business as a sustainable business," said Peter Sands, CEO of the British lender. "We intend to make loads of profits out of this but we also think it’s a good thing to be doing."

Earlier in the day, Jim Rogers, the chairman of Duke Energy, said much the same thing about a coalition of U.S. energy companies that committed to increase their investment in energy efficiency to $1.5 billion annually in order to reduce carbon emissions by about 30 million tons. But he also spoke about the value of social action for a corporation.

"We have a special responsibility for this problem," said Rogers, who noted that utilities emit some 35-40 percent of U.S. carbon. "I personally believe we have to act now on this issue. One of our aspirations should be this: to be the most energy efficient economy in the world. That’s the right aspiration."

It was lost on no one that major corporations are now a step or two ahead of the Bush Administration in pushing for efficient energy. The President’s gathering of European nations to discuss global warming has come in for some strong criticism, including the not-so-veiled uppercut punch thrown by the foreign minister of China – who had to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative to get a voice in the American debate. Some of Yang Jiechi’s remarks:

To prevent climate change from endangering human survival and
development while maintaining economic development and meeting the
legitimate demand of the people, this is an issue that concerns the
well being and the future of all mankind.

Economic development
and the environmental protection and efforts to tackle climate change
should be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually conflicting.For
developing countries like China, whose level of economic development is
still low and whose people are yet to live a better life, the most
depressing issue for them is to grow the economy and raise people’s
living standards.

Efforts to tackle climate change should promote economic development and not be pursued at the expense of the economic development.

the other hand, we must not fail to see that the economic development
model of high-energy consumption, high pollution, and high emissions is
not sustainable.  And the path of pursuing development first and
treating pollution next is not a viable one.

The best environment policy is also the best economic policy.

And there was the Republican Governor of Florida, the political heir to President Bush’s brother, announcing his own global warming initiative, an innovative plan by Florida Power & Light to build a solar power plant as part of a $2.4 billion clean energy program. And earning the praise of Bush’s predecessor, too:

"As we all know, Florida is one of the sunniest places in America, but this is the sort of thing, if they can prove it works, it can be done in sunny places all over the world," he said. "If you mix it in to your overall power mix, the extra cost is not particularly great."

So it’s public policy on a massive scale that can and should tackle the carbon problem, along with increased investments in the private sector that leverage new technologies. The consensus here was summed up neatly by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"The problem is now really simple – how do you get a global framework that incentivizes the development of technology toward the elimination of emissions, and how do you get a framework to get China and India and the developing nations incentivized behind that technology. One key is the private sector."

But what about philanthropy? I looked through some of the many commitments announced here and came up with a few that were either powered by philanthropic dollars, or where donor foundations assisted is strategy or organization. When you hit the charitable dollars, the money is much smaller – but it’s actual money, given for the cause.

  • The Center for International Forestry Research committed $6 million to launch "independent and timely analysis" of deforestation and national climate policies.
  • The Wallace Global Fund announced a coalition of NGOs, foundations and universities to support the policy of Ecuador President Rafael Correa to forego the development of a major oil field in the Amazon basin.
  • The Rainforest Alliance partnered with Gibson Guitars in a $480 project on forestry management in the manufacture of musical instruments.

And then there’s the pledge of the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helu – who pledged $100 million as part of a partnership with the Clinton Foundation and Vancouver mining and movie mogul Frank Giustra. The charitable dollars will create a coalition of extractive resource industry companies – along with Latin American governments – to help build sustainable economies. Perhaps that’s the three-sided partnership model in action after all.

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  • This is very interesting … but there is a serious disconnect between talking the talk and walking the walk. There is however, a relatively simple step that would improve the linkage between talk and walk. It is, what I call, “public accounting”. CPAs do “private accounting” and financial analysts do analysis from the investor perspective … and to a large extent the social dimension be dammed.
    “Public accounting” is based on solid GAAP principles but calls for cost and value analysis of the impact on society as a whole … the exploitation of the commons becomes a cost that is included in the “public accounting” of economic activities.
    The Tr-Ac-Net Organization is starting to apply this methodology in the relief and development sector and at the community level, where progress (or lack of) can be most readily observed … and where it is really easy to differentiate between talk and walk.
    Peter Burgess
    The Tr-Ac-Net Organization

  • Diane J. says:

    Third-party certification can also serve this purpose and is transparent. So the tropical wood that Gibson is committing to purchase is certified by the Rainforest Alliance as sustainably grown and harvested, causing minimal environmental damage and helping local communities. (I work for the Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica.) We have trained auditors who inspect to make sure all our and the Forest Stewardship Council standards are followed and the reports are made public. Also, Domtar and Time, Inc. have pledged to increase their use of FSC-certified wood and paper products over five years.

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