The U.S. election system is absurd. The UK runs the whole thing in weeks, but our 2016 election season has begun in earnest 15 months early, with the first debate tonight (or what might better be described as seemingly dozens of people on stage trying to say the most outrageous thing). This could be the election where climate change moves front and center -- but only if big business, with its influence and deep pockets, demands it.
In previous election cycles, climate change was like the crazy uncle you hide from company -- vaguely referred to but mostly ignored. It will be different this time. As the New York Times Coral Davenport wrote this week, since President Obama seems intent on making climate one of his big legacy issues, it will be hard for candidates to ignore it. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is saying a great deal about climate and renewables (half a billion solar panels!), and Bernie Sanders is calling climate change the planet's greatest threat.
Unfortunately, on the Republican side, it's a very different story. Four years ago, candidate Jon Huntsman made the mistake of saying that the GOP couldn't be anti-science (and that he believed in both evolution and climate science)... and he promptly disappeared from serious consideration.
This time around, the candidates won't make the same mistake of abundant rationality - even with overwhelming science and new, powerful voices in favor of bold action, from the Pope to financial world bigwigs like Michael Bloomberg and Hank Paulson. Across the 97 or so Republican candidates, there's no real difference in position.
Jeb Bush flounders around saying there is warming, but that people are 'arrogant' for accepting the science. Most others, like Marco Rubio, play the "I'm not a scientist" card or make the specious claim that climate action will be really expensive (it won't). And then there are those like Ted Cruz that go the full-blown denial route, telling the Koch brothers and other walking money piles that climate change is basically a liberal plot not supported by facts.
So is there anything that can change this march toward absurdity and, one can hope, irrelevance (two-thirds of the general population, including about half of Republicans, say they're less likely to vote for someone who denies climate change)? Maybe the general election next year will move the Republican candidate toward the center, but I'm hoping for another force to nudge them into the mainstream -- big business.
In the run-up to the global negotiations in Paris later this year, a large and growing group of very powerful companies are making seismic commitments to climate-related action. Thirteen big brands stood with the President last week to commit $140 billion of investment in the clean economy. My own database of the world's largest companies' sustainability goals shows that more than three-quarters of the Fortune Global 250 have climate, energy, or renewables goals in place -- and over a quarter have an aggressive carbon reduction target in line with what science says we need to do.
Many large companies are signing onto public agreements demanding action on climate (like Ceres climate declaration) and even, more specifically and aggressively, a price on carbon (see this World Bank call for action).
As more companies publicly commit to real action, how long can the disconnect between their own operational goals and their lobbying/political positions go on? (Or how long can their trade groups and chambers of commerce fight climate action?). These companies are going to need a predictable and supportive regulatory regime to hit big goals like 100 percent renewable energy.
I can't say with a straight face that Republican candidates won't get business support solely due to their archaic climate change views, and yet...
You never know what will happen on topics that move in public consciousness quickly. Consider gay rights. A few months ago, Arkansas was considering an Indiana-like law allowing companies to not serve gay couples (the famous wedding cake baker scenario). In response, Doug McMillon, the CEO of the most mainstream company in America (and Arkansas' largest employer), Walmart, tweeted that he wanted the governor to veto the law. If I had suggested, just a few years ago, that companies could publicly lead change on gay rights, it would've seemed naive.
Fifteen months is a long time in politics, science and climate belief. What might happen between now and then to bring businesses further along the climate action spectrum How bad will the water situation in California get? Will there be more droughts or storms at the scale of Hurricane Sandy to raise awareness? What will the world's leaders agree to in Paris?
There's a great deal up in the air, and I see the average view on climate in the mainstream business community moving fast. Will business leaders use their clout to nudge the Republican candidate(s) into supporting climate action? Don't bet against it anymore.