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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

There’s a Leadership Vacuum on Climate Change. Business Should Fill It

There’s a Leadership Vacuum on Climate Change. Business Should Fill It

This Earth Day is different. The world’s largest economy is governed by a president who has called global warming an “expensive hoax” on multiple occasions. He has threatened to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, and appointed a head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who as recently as last month has reported not believing that human activity or carbon dioxide are primary contributors to climate change, contradicting 150 years of basic physics and decades of scientific consensus. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by over 30%, and the agency’s staff by 15,000 jobs. This major shift in the executive branch’s attitude toward climate change leaves a big void in the U.S.’s — and the world’s — environmental stewardship, one that the private sector must fill.

Every Earth Day it’s tempting to write that “every day is Earth Day” and that we need to protect our shared resources. It’s trite…because it’s true, of course. A stable climate, clean air, clean water, safe food, and on and on, are not just nice-to-haves, but are critical for our well-being. Yet it seems to surprise many in the “environmental regulations kill business” camp that these basic biophysical supports for life also support business.

We could endlessly debate the merits of the costs and benefits of specific regulations, but at the macro level, a law as important as the Clean Air Act not only is not expensive — it’s probably the most profitable regulation in human history. Some sectors and companies bear more of the up-front expense of tackling carbon emissions, with the energy sector being the most obvious one. But many studies have estimated that the reduction in health care costs saves the economy, and thus all companies and citizens within that economy, tens of trillions of dollars. And that’s just direct health care benefits. There’s much more to keeping the economy clean. It’s increasingly strange to have to say this, but workers struggling to breathe are not productive, places without access to safe water, like Flint, Michigan — not to mention 3,000 other U.S. counties where lead rates are even higher — have trouble building a strong economy, and people in cities fighting rising seas or extreme drought do not make great customers. In short, the economy can’t thrive if people and the planet suffer.

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