What are we to think when big business takes the lead in global warming?

April 23, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

One year ago, an idealistic group of people gathered in Washington, D.C., to fret over the earth's environment and scheme for cleaner fuels and technologies. They ate organic canaps and drank wine supplied by a solar-powered, California vineyard.

Rush Limbaugh would have hooted them out of town.

Except that the speaker wasn't some gingham-dressed earth momma, it was Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, which through the years had not exactly built a reputation as a friend of Woodsy Owl. But by 2012, instead of a 40 percent increase in the emission of greenhouse gases - which was projected - Immelt pledged GE would decrease its emissions by 1 percent.

As Earth Day 2006 passed yesterday, those dismissive of global warming have a problem. And it's not their usual antagonists in the Sierra Club and scientific organizations who are giving them the trouble, it's their traditional allies in the corporate world.


The partisans, ideologues and knee-jerk, anti-environmentalists are finding themselves left alone at the table. Instead of the usual huzzahs from the corporate chorus, their protestations and ridicules of global warming are being greeted by the sound of crickets and the occasional nervous cough.

Safe to say nothing would have angried up the blood of old John Pierpont Morgan more than the knowledge that his company a century hence would have been teaming up with other megabanks to restrict the lending of capital to those without a solid environmental plan.

And Kimberly-Clark is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund and has sworn off fiber from ecologically significant old-growth and rainforests? What gives?

Several things. A few utensils on today's table were set back in the '80s when environmentalists raised the specter of acid rain. The ideologue reaction to the acid rain phenomenon then was much like the reaction to global warming is today. It was labeled "junk science" by the real junk scientists, those in the employ of big industry.

Anyone who warned of acid rain was called an "environmental whacko," because there was no such thing as acid rain and it was obviously just another scare tactic of green fruitcakes.

Then fish, forests and crops started to die. Entire lakes in the Northeast became sterile, with not a microbe of life to be found. Green mountainsides turned brown. Economic damage rose into the billions of dollars.

Of course no radio talk show hosts apologized to the environmental whackos or admitted to being incredibly wrong - they just moved on to the next target, global warming.

But due in part to the lessons of acid rain, much of the public wasn't quite as quick to move with them. Into this hesitation stepped - in what may one day be viewed as the best thing that could have happened to the environmental movement - a president with close ties to Big Oil.

Extremism never works for long in this country. Nothing hurt the environmental movement more than extreme environmentalists themselves, who took the successes of 30 years ago and tried to parlay them into a world where everyone was forced to ride to work at the recycling plant on bicycles and dine on sprouts.

So it was that when President Bush began to dismantle decades worth of environmental protections, wink at polluters and neglect our national parks, public unrest began to rise, even among Republicans.

In New Jersey, Christy Todd Whitman fought the coal-plant polluters. In New York, George Pataki became known for his forest-preservation efforts. John McCain began to raise concerns about global warming. And polls indicate people began to listen and become concerned - largely, I suspect, because Washington clearly wasn't.

And when the public gets an idea in its head, business generally comes sniffing at its heels. This isn't to say that General Electric and others wouldn't have taken a more environmentally friendly turn if it didn't sense a public groundswell - well, maybe it is.

Savvy corporations understand two things: First, you don't alienate the customer base, and second, it is possible to turn a profit without wrecking the planet. Taken together, these points mean that clean business is good business.

I don't know whether global warming is a man-made or naturally occurring event, and neither do talking heads, pundits and politicians. We should be your last source for information on the topic.

I do know that something's up, because I can see it with my own eyes. But I am also slow to hit the panic button, because having spent plenty of time out of doors, I have also seen the planet's remarkable ability to heal itself following man-made catastrophes.

Even if no one can say for certain what's happening, though, it seems sensible to me to err on the side of caution. Safe to say, companies such as GE are not universal, and there is a tremendous amount of money being spent to convince you that global warming is a fairy tail. At the very least, your radar should go up whenever you discern that someone is trying to buy your opinion. Truth doesn't need a bankroll.

So the overall public instinct may be correct, and so may be corporations that are lending it an ear. Being a capitalist, I am a big fan of corporate profits. But I am a bigger fan of the Earth. And should we fail to act, what do we do if the same people who had it so wrong about acid rain are wrong again?

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