05.01.14

Climate Change, Corporate America, and North Carolina

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I’m here, as regular viewers of the C-SPAN network know, for the sixty-fifth time every week that the Senate in in session to ask my colleagues her in the Senate to wake up to the realities of climate change that surround us.  Here’s what we know: We know that the oceans and atmosphere are warming.  By the way, that’s measurement, not theory.  We know that sea level is rising – again that’s measurement, not theory.  And we know that oceans are becoming more acidic.  Again, a simple measurement. 

The potential that these changes have to disrupt economic growth and to disrupt global commerce are the subject of my remarks today, and it is those changes that make   investors and corporate executives take climate change seriously.  We may not take climate change seriously, but corporate executives do.  A world of shifting seasons and extreme heat hurts their bottom line.  A world of drought-stricken farms, and flooded cities, of raging wildfires, and migrating diseases, is not good for business.

A recent article from the World Bank conveys the corporate outlook this way:  “In corporate boardrooms and the offices of CEOs, climate change is a real and present danger.  It threatens to disrupt the water supplies and supply chains of companies as diverse as Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil.  Rising sea levels and more intense storms put their infrastructure at risk, and the costs will only get worse.”

Earlier this month, executives from major American companies came to Washington for a roundtable discussion of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I lead with Congressman Waxman.  Each of the companies present has signed the Climate Declaration of the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP.  They see a low-carbon economy as the smart way to create new jobs and stimulate economic growth.  More than 750 companies—nameplate American corporations like eBay, Gap, Levi’s, Nike, Starbucks and many others—have signed the BICEP Climate Declaration.

Kevin Rabinovitch is Global Sustainability Director at Virginia-based candy company Mars Incorporated, makers of the famous M&M’s, among other things.  At the roundtable, he told us Mars has a goal of eliminating fossil fuel energy use and greenhouse gas emissions company-wide by 2040.  In fact, Mr. President, just yesterday, Mars announced it will build a 200-megawatt wind farm in Texas that will generate enough energy to power all Mars operations in the U.S.  I applaud this exciting step for Mars, and the bold vision that it represents.

But Mr. Rabinovitch told the Bicameral Task Force, “…if other companies and governments don’t adopt similar science-based targets, our efforts will have limited effect on climate change.  We cannot do it alone.” 

This is why the business community needs Congress to get off the sidelines; to quit denying rudimentary science and abundant evidence.

Improving energy efficiency reduces climate-altering carbon emissions, but it also, these businesses find, reduces operating costs.  Colin Dyer is President and CEO of Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated, the second-largest publicly traded commercial real estate brokerage firm in the world.  “Cost savings alone represent a compelling benefit of sustainable design, construction, and management,” he told us.  Jones Lang LaSalle put smart building management technology to work for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble.  According to Dyer, “P&G earned back its initial investment in the technology in three months and saw average energy cost savings of 10-percent annually.  The program, which is being expanded, also improved building systems reliability, supported the company’s broader sustainability programs and actually increased employee productivity.”

Smart executives understand how much their customers care about this.  Rob Olson, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of IKEA, said, “from talking to our customers, we know that Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change as they experience events like Hurricane Sandy and the drought in California.  They want to reduce the amount of energy they use in their home, and they care about reducing waste and using less water.”

This is not a new message from America’s corporate sector.  Last year, the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change wrote to over 300 businesses and organizations about carbon pollution and climate change.  The response was encouraging.

Coca-Cola, headquartered in Georgia, wrote:  “We recognize climate change is a critical challenge facing our planet, with potential impacts on biodiversity, water resources, public health and agriculture. . . . Beyond the effects on the communities we serve, we view climate change as a potential business risk, understanding that it could likely have direct and indirect effects on our business.” 

Walmart, founded and headquartered in Arkansas, wrote:  “We’re committed to reducing our carbon footprint and we’re working with our suppliers to do the same.”  Here’s what Walmart said in its 2009 sustainability report:

Climate change may not cause hurricanes, but warmer ocean water can make them more powerful.  Climate change may not cause rainfall, but it can increase the frequency and severity of heavy flooding.  Climate change may not cause droughts, but it can make droughts longer.  Every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can....Currently, we are investing in renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency in our buildings and trucks, working with suppliers to take carbon out of products and supporting legislation in the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So, serious business leaders are looking for serious answers to the looming economic crisis of climate change.  An article last month in the Harvard Business Review, titled “How to Survive Climate Change and Still Run a Thriving Business,” outlines recommendations for companies looking to strengthen their supply chains and better understand their consumers. 

Serious business leaders are also fed up with the denial apparatus run by the big carbon polluters.  Major utilities PG&E, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, and Exelon all quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after a Chamber official called for putting climate science on trial like the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.  Large tech companies like Apple and Yahoo also left the Chamber.

One of the companies that came in to the Bicameral Task Force was North Carolina-based VF Corporation.  You may not have heard of VF Corporation, but you’ve sure heard of their major brands.  They make Lee, Wrangler, Nautica, North Face, and many other name brands. 

Letitia Webster is their director of global corporate sustainability, and they have a global perspective on climate change.  Their customers around the world are concerned about climate change, particularly their younger customers, and VF wants to meet those customers’ expectations for good citizenship.  VF also needs cotton for all their clothing, and they’re worried about climate disruption to the cotton supply chain.  “Research tells us that continued climate change will make it more and more difficult for farmers to manage cotton crops and for companies to manage their supply chains.” 

VF also provides very high-performance clothing and equipment for high performance outdoor athletes, who train and compete in places where changes are already evident.   Those athletes see the same changes as the 100 Winter Olympic competitors from ten countries who signed a letter warning about climate change.  Letitia Webster mentioned in particular the Khumbu Icefall, which has closed Mt. Everest to climbers for the first time. 

She’s not the only one.  Here’s what John All, a climber, a scientist, and a professor of geography at Western Kentucky University, told The Atlantic:  “I am at Everest Base Camp right now and things are dire because of climate change. . . . The ice is melting at unprecedented rates and [that] greatly increases the risk to climbers.” 

“You could say [that] climate change closed Mt. Everest this year,” he added. 

Tim Rippel is a climbing guide, and he blogged from Everest Base Camp:  “As a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association I have my educated concerns.  The mountain has been deteriorating rapidly the past three years due [to] global warming and the breakdown in the Khumbu Icefall is dramatic.” 

Ms. Webster warned of the costs of inaction, saying “it’s too expensive not to take action.” 

This is a North Carolina company, and I hope its message gets through to elected officials who represent North Carolina.  Senator Hagan has already spoken passionately about the need to act on climate change.  She gets it.  But her colleagues on the other side of the aisle: they remain silent.

[Outer Banks 1]

I visited North Carolina over the recess as part of a tour of the effects of climate change along the Southeast Coast.  I flew out to where sea-level rise is gnawing away at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

[SW and Scientists]

I visited the marine science facility at Pivers Island, where scientists from Duke University, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, East Carolina State, and NOAA are studying aspects of sea-level rise in North Carolina, and effects of ocean acidification on microbes that form the basis of the food web.

These are some of the world’s leading scientists.   They all know that these changes are driven by carbon pollution.  There is no doubt.  Unless North Carolina’s elected officials think their own universities are part of the big hoax some of our colleagues talk about, they had better pay attention to what is happening on the North Carolina coast.

I met with the North Carolina Coastal Federation at their Coastal Education Center in Wilmington.  It was a bipartisan group, joined together in concern over the exposure of their coastal communities to the rising seas.  The North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment, prepared in 2010 by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards says, “The most likely scenario for 2100 AD is a rise of 0.4 meter to 1.4 meters (15 inches to 55 inches) above present.”  And by the way, that’s what they call “bathtub measures.”  That doesn’t take into account what 55 inches of extra sea will do when it’s heaped against the shore by storm surge from a big tropical storm or hurricane.  So I hope that their delegation in Congress is listening.

The biggest power producer in North Carolina is Charlotte-based Duke Energy.  Duke worked through the United States Climate Action Partnership for climate change legislation.  Duke actually pulled out of the National Association of Manufacturers because of that organization’s denial of climate change.  “We are not renewing our membership in the NAM because in tough times, we want to invest in associations that are pulling in the same direction we are,” said Duke Chief Executive Officer Jim Rogers.  He said that NAM, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Republicans “ought to roll up their sleeves and get to work on a climate bill . . . .”  Duke Energy might want to also consider whether North Carolina politicians are pulling in the same direction.

This is not complicated.  Load up carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and you load up heat in the atmosphere.  We’ve known that since Abraham Lincoln was President – this is not a new discovery.  Load up the heat, and the oceans warm up.  That’s not some theory, either; you can measure it.  With thermometers.  When liquid warms, it expands, unless my colleagues want to repeal the Law of Thermal Expansion.  And as the ocean expands and ice melts, up goes the sea level, up 6 inches at the tide gauge in Wilmington, North Carolina, since 1954. 

Now, if my colleagues want to deny the six-inch increase in the tide gauge in Wilmington, North Carolina, let me explain to them what the North Carolina Assessment says about how you measure sea-level rise:

[Sea-level rise] can be directly measured in a straightforward way.  The longest record of direct measurement of sea level comes from tide gauges.  A tide gauge is a device built to measure water level variations due to tides and weather, and to eliminate effects due to waves.  A tide gauge can be as simple as a long ruler nailed to a post on a dock.  More sophisticated instruments, like those used by NOAA, are usually placed in a stilling well, or pipe, that protects a float connected to a recording device from waves.  As tides rise and fall, the float’s motion is recorded.

Not complicated—good luck denying that.

[Outer Banks 2]

When you fly over the North Carolina coast, you see a lot of investment along the seashore: lots of houses, lots of hotels, condominiums, restaurants—an entire seafront economy that the larger North Carolina economy very much depends on.  What are my colleagues from North Carolina going to tell them about climate change?  Don’t worry?  It’s not real?  Good luck with that – they’re already measuring the sea-level rise.

Mr. President, those small businesses in North Carolina want to protect their storefronts from sea-level rise just as VF Corporation wants to protect its cotton supply from drought.  These North Carolina companies get the economic threat that climate change presents. 

The frustrating thing here is that we can strengthen our economies and businesses by tackling the problem of climate change and sea-level rise head-on. And we can leave things better, not worse, for the generations that will follow us – perhaps the simplest obligation that we hold, and one, by the way, at which we are presently failing  But if we’re going to stop failing at that obligation, if we’re going to tackle this problem head-on, we have to wake up to reality.  We’ve got to put aside once and for all the toxic polluter-paid politics that infect Washington. And I’ll close by saying the denial campaign that is run by these polluters is as poisonous to our democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere and oceans.  America is suffering as a result of Congress being tangled in a web of lies, and surrounded by a barricade of special interests.  We have got to break through that.  It’s a matter of truth, it’s a matter of honor, and it’s a matter of being effective at these real problems. 

I yield the floor.