Suddenly everyone is talking about the environment again. It reminds me of the movement's early days, when the health and safety threats posed by air and water pollution motivated people to demand action. Congress responded by passing the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and by creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Back then it was easy to predict who would be on which side of these new regulations: Environmental groups would support them, and business would oppose them. Today global warming is the issue, and people are again demanding action. A new Yale research survey finds that 83 percent of Americans now consider global warming a "serious" problem, and 81 percent feel it is their responsibility to change their behavior to solve the problem.
After years of delay and denial by the administration, the new Congress is now proposing laws to address greenhouse-gas pollution. But this time something is different. Business is no longer united in its opposition to regulations. In fact, many progressive companies are speaking out in favor of strong economy-wide caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Other companies are taking aggressive voluntary steps to reduce their own carbon footprint. Still others are investing in new consumer products that are less polluting.
Toyota, for example, was a pioneer in cleaner car technology. When most auto companies were betting their future on big SUVs, it was also investing in innovative hybrid technology for cars like the Prius. Today the market is rewarding the company's leadership. Wal-Mart, once a target of many environmentalists, is now an advocate for reducing energy consumption, and is promoting organic food in its stores. Philips Lighting, the country's largest light-bulb manufacturer, proposes eliminating incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, which are three times more efficient. And most notably, 10 Fortune 500 companies, including General Electric, Alcoa, DuPont, and Duke Energy, recently announced support for 60 percent to 90 percent reductions in CO2 emissions by 2050.
These forward-looking companies realize not only that global warming is bad for business but that they can make money by helping to solve the problem. First, they can save money by becoming more energy efficient themselves. Capitalism rewards efficiency. Second, they see a growing demand for energy-efficient products. It's becoming safer for them to make long-term investments in clean, efficient products than old polluting ones. Third, they understand that businesses will adjust to greenhouse-gas pollution regulations just like they previously adjusted to air and water pollution regulations. Mostly, businesses require predictability and a level playing field. They need to know what pollution-reduction levels they must achieve, and they need the regulations to apply equally to everyone.
Businesses are starting to compete, to come up with the best solutions to global warming, and in this case, when they compete, the environment wins. If leading businesses and environmentalists speak out together, Congress and the administration might listen and act. The first step is for each of us to do our part to reduce our own carbon footprint and then speak out to our elected representatives. To learn more about what you can do and how you can make your voice heard, visit www.audubon.org.-John Flicker