Our new Outside Voice series highlights the perspectives of stakeholders and leaders on important sustainability topics. On the particulars, we may not always agree. But we believe in hearing and learning from others who offer valuable insights and a different point of view on issues that are important to us all.
Our first Outside Voice is Tensie Whelan, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business and former president of Rainforest Alliance. She leads NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business. Whelan believes climate change is among the greatest environmental challenges we face, with immediate and future consequences that we cannot ignore. She recently spoke with our Outside Voice team about the work of corporations, governments, activists and individuals that can help or harm efforts to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures.
Q. What aspects of climate change concern you most?
A. I think climate change creates the biggest threat to humanity to date. It creates the twin problems of reduced access to water and too much water. It brings more frequent extreme weather — flooding and drought — which affects our food sources, our industries and our homes.
The increasing temperatures have effects on people’s health and wellbeing, not to mention the immediate risks to people living in low-lying areas, such as Bangladesh.
And the small things matter. Personally, I have a family home in Vermont. With climate change, the maple trees won’t generate as much syrup or, at some point, any syrup. These things seem small, but they are examples of changes in a local ecosystem. And these are happening or will happen en masse across many ecosystems.
Q. What do you see in the global response — by governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals — that is either heartening or discouraging?
A. I’m heartened to see the very positive response by some business leaders and some governments. There is a coalition of thousands of companies that have committed to meeting the Paris Agreement or have set science-based targets to tie to reduced emissions. There’s a growing number of companies disclosing their risks related to climate change, and when they don’t, investors may force them to, such as with Exxon. I think that’s terrific. Also, there are hundreds of billions of dollars of commitments by banks to finance the transition to a more sustainable economy.
In the United States, we’ve seen more action by state and city governments than the federal government. For example, here in New York, the government has made some significant commitments, including a green bank to fund energy alternatives. This is helping finance investments in energy alternatives and microgrids. It’s very exciting.
NGOs have played an important role in convening and supporting companies. The Climate Group, CDP, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund — these are just a few of the nonprofits working with businesses to address climate change. Some groups are doing good research, some are looking for opportunities for collaboration around innovation, and some are holding business and government accountable, [which] is important.
On the negative side, greenhouse gas emissions have shot up over the last couple of years. We are close to a 1.5-degree increase. We use more and more energy. At the federal and international government level, we’re not seeing the pace of change needed. The private sector can do a lot, but government support is needed to scale solutions quickly.
The lack of robust political leadership on this topic is one of the saddest things. No matter our geography, political party or socioeconomic class, climate change affects us and our children, and it shouldn’t be politicized.
Q. What call to action would you, as an Outside Voice, give to companies such as Domtar and to NGOs about how to move forward?
A. I think the first step is to set science-based targets and then make the robust investments to get to those targets. Even when there are upfront costs, many companies are finding that this leads to operational efficiencies, risk mitigation and customer loyalty, as well as other tangible benefits.
I know Domtar has been making commitments and improvements to its own operations. In addition, I think we need corporate leaders to pressure governments to be more proactive in supporting and scaling up our energy transition. That’s an area where the corporate sector could do better.
We are seeing more investors ask questions about how to remove these risks from their portfolios.
On an individual level, we need to be clearer about the fact that we are responsible for creating a world where our children are going to suffer. We all need to make more disciplined choices about our lifestyle, our purchases and our votes. We can reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions within our homes and our everyday lives.
In my work as a professor at NYU Stern School of Business, I see that the younger generation cares more about the environment and finding purpose in their lives. They want values alignment with companies they work for and buy from.
Unfortunately, climate change is happening now. We need to take immediate action to keep it from getting worse and to help individuals and companies build resiliency to its negative impacts.