Investors representing staggering sums of money gathered at the headquarters of United Nations to hear a day of discussions on climate risk and energy solutions this week.
The packed room included bankers, pension fund executives, policy-makers and the usual crowd of climate change professionals largely made up of consultants that cycle in and out of public and private organizations wearing different hats but often propounding the same message. Their message is one that seemed welcome in the last decade – that markets could be harnessed to solve climate change problems, that a price on carbon emissions would be good not just for health but for businesses currently facing (in the oft-quoted Nicholas Stern phrase) “a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”
Before the Great Recession diminished the appeal of markets, and before President Obama’s anticlimactic appearance at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, banks and insurance companies were gearing up to provide business with the host of services that a trade in carbon emissions would require. From data services and engineering to legal interpretations and trading desks, a new industry representing ever-more lofty amounts would be created by finally encompassing all the world’s largest economies in a single program, the promise went.
None of that happened. Climate change negotiations straggle on, bearing half the carcass of the Kyoto Protocol process with them as they attempt to bridge still-enormous gaps between developed and developing nations in a fast-evolving economic and political power structure.
It is hard to blame the UN or the enterprises with climate change businesses models for getting bogged down in the latest morass of global history. The organization was perhaps never the ideal body for handling the issue, but now it is in charge and a bureaucracy is entrenched to handle the ever-proliferating details of an ever-shrinking program.
But the biggest question for presenters at the UN event, sponsored by Ceres and its Investor Network on Climate Risk, went largely unasked: Where is the greed?
Greed is a strong word, but if the climate change community is serious about finding a market solution to the crisis they are so good at describing, it is also an effective one. Greed is an essential – if sometimes toxic – element in markets.
At the UN this week, esteemed scientists rolled out the dire forecasts based on compelling and huge data sets everyone is now familiar with. Dying species, costly weather events and sick children all were raised as specters of climate change, and there was little reason to discount the evidence.
Pension funds and state treasuries have led in responding to these fears, and as the appointed guarantors against our fears of destitution or havoc their actions are logical. The interest of the banks that must devise investments to sell them was equally self-evident, as was the presence of large data providers that will need to quantify everything so lawsuits can be avoided.
But no one made a compelling case for action. Fear is one emotion thoroughly covered by the climate change industry, greed is not.
The other side of the coin, the question of how money is made and how resource allocation based on ambition rather than horror are motivated to fight climate change through investment in reducing carbon emissions has yet to be answered by the climate change industry. Passing mention was made at the Ceres conference of new industries created by regulatory fiat in the past, but the examples of history largely fail to match the reach and pervasiveness of a subject like climate change and the resulting implied, or even explicated, doom.
To close the gap on climate change action, to reach a real and widely-held consensus, the debate needs to move beyond the science. For most people, the science barely matters in their individual and daily lives; increasingly only the doctrinaire on either side of the debate bother to argue it. Fear and greed drive markets in turn.
Climate change markets have fear down pat. Where is the greed?
This Breaking Energy Comment reflects the views of the author alone, in this case, Breaking Energy Managing Editor Peter Gardett. Join the Breaking Energy discussion by leaving a comment below or joining a conversation on our Discussions page.