The Transition to a Sustainable Economy May Happen Without the U.S. Federal Government

I am always amazed by the way some people manage to deny facts and then somehow get attention and even a measure of legitimacy for their bizarre views. People that deny the Holocaust have obviously never sat on a beach in Brooklyn in the 1960s and seen the purple numbers tattooed on the arms of old people who had survived that horrific disaster. People who deny the facts of climate change seem to have a similar sketchy relationship with factual reality. Forgetting about the specifics, does anyone seriously think that doubling the human population over the last half-century had no lasting impact on the earth's natural systems? If you think that automobiles don't pollute the air, stand behind the tail pipe of an idling car for an hour and let me know how you feel.

Here at Columbia University's Earth Institute we have over 100 people with doctorates studying every aspect of the climate problem. Wally Broecker, Mark Cane, Jim Hansen and scores of their colleagues have been working on these issues for decades. While the factual reality of their research seems to elude Mitt Romney and his politico pals these days, facts remain facts. It would be helpful if American national public policy and our elected officials could play a leadership role in moving the planet to a more sustainable path, but it has become clear that we will need to look elsewhere to address these issues.

The sustainability problem is fairly simple, and with or without the U.S. government, we will be working on it over the coming decades. The sustainability problem was created when we built our economic well-being on the use of finite resources that will eventually become too scarce and too expensive to rely on. Principal among these resources are fossil fuels. Even if they did not cause global warming, they would eventually get too expensive to burn and we would need to find another way to power our economy.

Another element of the problem is that the modern life built on these non-renewable resources is seductive and addictive. We like living this way, and no one is about to turn off the lights or stop charging their smart phone. For political leaders wishing to gain or maintain power, the delivery of a robust economy is non optional. Moreover, the reduction of economic opportunity and the elimination of modern conveniences would lead to immense levels of social conflict and political instability. So, sustainability requires that we sustain our planet and also sustain our way of life. There is a good reason that economy is at the center of American political life. ("It's the economy, stupid!")

Economic consumption will change in the sustainable and renewable resource-based economy, but it will not be reduced. In fact, the size of the sustainable but high throughput economy that we must develop will be larger than today's economy. We need to accommodate another three billion people and ensure that the planet's steady state population of 10 billion is fed, housed, clothed and productively employed. That will require a larger economy, not a smaller one. But it will be an economy that carefully manages finite resources, waste and environmental impacts. It will be an economy based on renewable and re-usable resources that are sustainably managed.

While the U.S. federal government is incapable of leadership, many other national governments, municipal governments and nongovernmental organizations have already begun to move on the sustainability agenda. Here in New York, our own Mayor Mike Bloomberg is a leader in the growing movement for urban sustainability. Beyond the work of government, ambitious professionals and entrepreneurial firms are also working in this area. Last week, I experienced two examples of the nongovernmental sector taking a leadership role in sustainability.

On Thursday morning, I attended a breakfast sponsored by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), a leading global investment firm, where they released their second Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report. A letter from the company's founders and co-CEOs George Roberts and Henry Kravis makes it clear that these guys are not only interested in the PR value of going green, but believe that sound, high quality investment requires long-term thinking and active consideration of the factors central to global sustainability:

"...In this volatile environment, our commitment to responsible investment -- the consideration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in our investment and private equity management processes -- is even more critical. As smart investors, we work to understand all of the performance drivers, both inside and outside the business, of the companies in which we invest... Our Green Portfolio Program continued to highlight how our portfolio companies create value through environmental initiatives. In addition to avoiding more than 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and 300 million liters of water use, the results showed that these initiatives contributed more than $365 million in cost savings or added revenue for participating portfolio companies."

While this field is still in its infancy, KKR's effort is impressive and realistic. They are convinced that waste reduction, more efficient use of raw materials and lowering the cost of energy can help a company make money. Moreover, businesses that sell sustainability services are starting to find increased demand for their services. When major investment firms like KKR begin to absorb sustainability factors into their investment strategies, it is clear that we are entering a new economic paradigm.

The second example of sustainability progress came from my own employer, Columbia University. In recognition of the need for trained sustainability professionals, the Earth Institute is partnering with Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs' Executive MPA program to field a new concentration in environmental policy and sustainability management. The university is also continuing to offer its now 11-year old MPA in Environmental Science and Policy. Last month, 70 students began their studies in this program. Additionally, the Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education is about to start the third year of its Masters of Science in Sustainability Management.

But the really exciting news from last week is that Columbia approved the launch of a new graduate level certificate program in Sustainability Analytics. The new certificate requires four graduate courses on the identification, measurement, analysis, and reporting of sustainability indicators. Over the past year, Earth Institute faculty have developed a set of new courses in Sustainability Metrics, Energy Efficiency Analysis, Green Accounting and Life Cycle Analysis. We are finding that the number of sustainability professionals is growing rapidly, but some do not have the time to study for a full master's degree. While they are unwilling to commit to an entire degree, these folks are eager to enroll in a course or two at night for a couple of years, and learn the latest techniques of sustainability analytics and sustainability management. The new certificate is designed to meet their needs.

While it is disheartening to see the federal cutbacks in environmental science research and the absence of federal sustainability policy, one needn't travel too far from D.C. to see a very different picture. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Columbia University and hundreds of enthusiastic students in our classrooms think sustainability is serious business. They know that the planet is under stress and the path to a prosperous future is to make the transition to a sustainable economy. The planet Earth is truly the gift that can keep on giving. The transition to a renewable, sustainable economy is underway; maybe not in Washington, but pretty much everywhere else.