60 Minutes re-ran a show from November about The Pledge, an initiative created by Bill and Melinda Gates with Warren Buffet, to encourage people in the billionaire club – about 1,600 people in the world according to 2014 figures – to pledge to ‘give back’ 50% of their fortune to the charity of their choice. Gates and Buffet are #1 and #4 in the world as of the Forbes List for 2014.
Sara Blakely, who turned $5,000 into billions with her butt-shaper, Spanx, is interested in ‘helping women.’ Steve and Jean Case (AOL) want to empower others in civic engagement. Billionaire passions in the group interviewed included unemployment in South Africa; brain cancer; tax reform in California and the national debt. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to eradicate infectious diseases.
Honestly, I was struck by how few of these great business minds seem to think climate change worthy of their attention and money. Only former Ebay president, Jeffrey Skoll, included climate change in his top five ‘global threats,’ although #2 water security and #3 pandemics are closely related. Skoll is also founder of Participant Media that was a key underwriter for An Inconvenient Truth and Years of Living Dangerously, among others.
Could the reluctance of self-made billionaires to engage with the politically-charged issue of climate change have something to do with biting the hand that feeds you? After all, American corporations in particular enjoy tax advantages and a cozy relationship with the government few ordinary citizens can aspire to.
(We can Amend this, and right-size corporate power.)
A business background is not preventing former hedge fund manager, Tom Steyer, from climate advocacy that is raising eyebrows on both sides of the political divide. Steyer is pledging $50M of his own money — and seeking matching funds — to eliminate climate change deniers in key races (for governor of Florida, being one), fighting fire with fire, as it were. And it hasn’t stopped former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg (Forbes List #15), from co-chairing a stunning report entitled Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the U.S. It should be mandatory reading for everyone in the business community. And if you live/work/invest in/own property along the East Coast, this quote from the executive summary should get your attention:
Within the next 15 years, higher sea levels combined with storm surge will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion. Adding in potential changes in hurricane activity, the likely increase in average annual losses grows to up to $7.3 billion, bringing the total annual price tag for hurricanes and other coastal storms to $35 billion.
Where will the money come from to cover these losses? Will ‘ongoing emergency response’ (Bill McKibben) become part of business as usual, accounted for in GDP in the years affected by big climate events? What will happen to civil society in such a world?
It may be cold comfort (better than none) to realize that a large shift is occurring, not just among the people who hold most of the world’s wealth, but in the business community that, for better or worse, shapes and controls so much of who and what we are – and with our consent. Whenever you feel powerless, remember what author/activist, Arundhati Roy, says so memorably about corporations: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.
Boycotts are effective. Remember Gandhi’s walk to the sea to gather salt. But equally, it makes sense to identify the businesses that are part of the shift and support them: Starbucks, Stoneyfield Farms, Eileen Fisher, Ben and Jerry’s – about 170 at last count, and growing. Here’s their letter in support of President Obama’s climate initiative. Find the business leaders who speak your language, and don’t waste your time fretting about their personal lifestyles. Plan B Team’s Mission:
We, the undersigned, believe that the world is at a critical crossroads. Global business leaders need to come together to advance the wellbeing of people and planet. In fact, we think business has to think this way in order to thrive.