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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Climate Change Report Makes the Business Case for Action

By Tina Casey

The Trump administration released the latest National Climate Assessment last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Day. This kind of timing is considered a fairly effective way to release bad news to the public, without attracting too much attention from the public. However, the opportunity for dissembling may prove illusory. The corporate social responsibility movement all but guarantees that the impacts of climate change will receive a vigorous airing over the weeks to come.

Or, will it? Friday news dump or not, The New York Times and other media propelled the new report into the headlines over the weekend. What's missing so far, though, is the response from leading U.S. business stakeholders.

The new climate change report

Before digging in, a bit of background is in order. The National Climate Assessment is a research and planning document mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It is issued to Congress and the President periodically. The new climate change report is the fourth such document and was issued under the auspices of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The first part of the report -- Volume I -- actually appeared last year under the title, Climate Science Special Report. It didn't gain much traction, most likely because it focused on the data collection and foundational science mandated by the 1990 law.

The new report is different. As explained in NOAA's press release last Friday, it is a forward-looking document that deals with interpretation, analysis, and projections of trends:

Volume II focuses on the human welfare, societal, and environmental elements of climate change and variability...with particular attention paid to observed and projected risks, impacts, consideration of risk reduction, and implications under different mitigation pathways...

The press release elaborates:
Without substantial and sustained global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regional initiatives to prepare for anticipated changes, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.

In other words, the new report is a plain language document that directly addresses climate change issues of deep concern to the business community.

Where's the response?

To be fair, it would be difficult for most businesses to formulate a response over the weekend. The Trump Administration released the new National Climate Assessment with a double whammy in mind: it wasn't just any Friday, but the Friday after a national holiday, when many businesses are either closed or running with partial staff. Any real fireworks from the business community will play out over the days and weeks to come.

When the response does come, it may initially focus on the broad economic impacts underscored by the new report, where the media already set the table. Reuters lead off with this headline:

Clashing with Trump, U.S. government report says climate change will batter economy
Vox followed up with the subheading, "climate change is here, it’s expensive, and it’s deadly, according to a dire new report."

The Wall Street Journal also provides a representative sample of the media reaction:

The impact of global climate change is being felt across the country and, unchecked, could cause U.S. economic losses totaling hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century, says a new U.S. government report released Friday.

However, general economic impacts are only part of the report. Under its mandate, the National Climate Assessment also addresses a foundational underpinning of the corporate social responsibility movement, economic equality:
Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and economic inequality.
Economic inequality has been a key focus of corporate responsibility leaders like Levi-Strauss & Co., among others. Partly as a response to ethical supply chain management, leading companies have been moving beyond the traditional model of corporate charity to engage in community building and sustainable economic development, including water and natural resource conservation.

Climate change is already undermining that platform, and the new report makes the case that inaction will upend it completely:

People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.

In short, the new report invites U.S. businesses to respond within the full spectrum of corporate social responsibility concerns, in addition to their own bottom line issues.

U.S. businesses are already responding

So, why is it more likely than not that U.S. businesses will react strongly to the new report?

The obvious reason is that many leading companies are already well aware of the risks and impacts of climate change. They are already taking significant steps to transition to a low carbon economy, both within their own operations and in collaboration with their host communities, local governments and other stakeholders.

In addition to high profile actions like investing in clean energy and addressing lifecycle issues, businesses are also adjusting to new developments in insurance and risk management related to climate change. The financial community is also stepping in to ramp up low carbon investing.

Leading U.S. businesses have also recognized that environmental issues are important to consumers, and they are eager to promote their products in the context of sustainability. The consumer angle will grow in force as list of impacts grows. The California wildfires earlier this month are just the latest in a string of climate-linked extreme natural disasters in the U.S.

There is also a not-so-obvious reason, one that circles back around to the Friday news dump. President Trump was elected on a "Chinese hoax" platform of denying the scientific consensus on climate change, and as President he continues to undermine efforts to focus federal leadership on climate change.

By Saturday the White House was already undermining and dismissing the National Climate Assessment, but the report's authors are pushing back. The Hill caught this exchange on November 24:

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in a statement that the report is "largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends."

Katherine Hayhoe, one of the authors of the report, pushed back on that statement, calling it "demonstrably false."

"I wrote the climate scenarios chapter myself so I can confirm it considers ALL scenarios, from those where we go carbon negative before end of century to those where carbon emissions continue to rise," she tweeted.

The takeaway from all this is that once again, the President has left the federal government rudderless while one of the most consequential issues confronting U.S. businesses unfolds.

As with gun control and other matters of national concern, the U.S. business community has little choice but to step up and take action -- and the National Climate Assessment has just handed companies a powerful platform for doing just that in this era of brands taking stands.

Image credit: NOAA

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey