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Corporate Leaders to Trump: Withdrawing From the Paris Agreement Makes Bad Business Sense

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Corporate Leaders to Trump: Withdrawing From the Paris Agreement Makes Bad Business Sense
A trader at the New York Stock Exchange watches as President Trump signs a bill rolling back regulations. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

By Courtney Lindwall

President Trump says fulfilling the country's commitment to the Paris climate agreement would be bad news for the U.S. economy, but the growing tally of business leaders pledging to take action anyway suggests otherwise. These businesspeople understand that while climate action costs money, climate change costs far more.


More than 2,200 businesses and investors have signed on to the "We Are Still In" pledge — even as Trump moves ever-closer to official U.S. withdrawal. The group standing behind the 2015 climate deal represents a whopping 70 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), and thousands more have joined other corporate climate and sustainability programs, such as the We Mean Business coalition and the Science-Based Targets Initiatives.

And while many corporations are still contending with their own outsize roles in creating the climate crisis (along with other environmental and social woes), many are already on their way to implementing the changes necessary to meet their carbon emissions targets.

Tech superpower Apple, for instance, is now running all of its facilities in 43 countries on 100 percent clean energy — in some cases sending surplus energy from its solar farms back to the local grid. Apple is also securing commitments from its suppliers to switch to renewables. Over in the fashion industry, sneaker giant Nike has committed to diverting 99 percent of its footwear manufacturing waste from landfills, making certain products with recycled plastic bottles, and reducing carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 30 percent by 2030.

Such commitments multiply daily, even as the Trump administration's rollbacks of the most important federal climate policies continue try to steer America in a different direction: backwards. Here are just a few of the reasons companies are opting to move forward instead.

Bottom Lines

Trump often says that the Paris Agreement "punishes" the U.S., particularly its businesses, but he outright ignores the far more destructive economic force of climate change. According to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, a business-as-usual high-emissions scenario (like the one Trump touts) could result in a 7.2 percent drop in GDP per capita worldwide by the end of the century. Disruptions to global supply chains are already upon us, and as carbon pollution continues to collect in our atmosphere, more will come. Experts predict far-reaching impacts to the infrastructure that supports nearly all businesses, such as extreme weather affecting the transportation of raw goods and rising sea levels swamping the fiber-optic cables essential to the internet.

Of course, climate change will also jeopardize specific industries, such as winter sports (see: decreases in snowfall), and products, like your morning cup of coffee. In fact, it's little wonder that Starbucks has also signed on to We Are Still In. Climate change may bring increasingly irregular growing seasons (and skyrocketing prices) for coffee beans on top of increased sick days for field workers exposed to extreme heat. Such concerns would apply to almost any business dependent on either agriculture or a global workforce, or both. According to a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report, for every additional degree Celsius that the planet warms, we can expect a 5 to 15 percent reduction in total crop yield.

Big Penance

While many corporations have spewed more than their fair share of carbon pollution, several are now taking the opportunity to have a supersize impact on emissions reductions. Look at the world's two biggest retailers: Amazon and Walmart. Amazon says it will go carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris goals, and recently made moves to start transitioning its fleet of delivery trucks to electric vehicles. Soon after Trump took office, Walmart announced its Project Gigaton initiative, which set the ambitious goal of lowering the company's global carbon emissions — by pressing for action on the part of its suppliers — by one billion metric tons before 2030. Walmart has since reported that it's on track to meet its goal, which is no small feat: the entire U.S. emitted 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon in 2017.

Market Trends

Climate action is no longer seen as the enemy of economic progress. While the clean energy industry has known this for a while, the notion is (finally) catching on in other corners of the economy — and most excitingly it's creating opportunities for market-disrupting innovation.

Take electric vehicles (EVs). While Trump fights the auto industry's progress in manufacturing cleaner cars and trucks, countries such as China are investing in zero-emission vehicle technology at warp speed. According to a recent report by JP Morgan Research, China is expected to account for nearly 60 percent of all global EV sales by next year, and many Chinese businesses (the ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing, for example) are eager to profit while they help the world progress. The same goes for the folks behind other innovations — like plant-based faux meats, and energy-efficient fabrics made from coffee grounds, and petroleum-free plastics, and delivery vans fueled by food waste and ... you get the idea. A poll by the data firm Nielsen showed that 81 percent of consumers feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. The sustainability economy is booming — and climate-conscious Gen Z'ers and millennials are ready to buy accordingly.

Consumer Trust

At their best, corporate climate pledges open business practices up to public accountability and mark a first step toward real-life emissions cuts. At their worst, they provide a greenwashed shield behind which polluting companies can hide their status quo behaviors. Procter & Gamble, for one, boasts about the forest-friendly sourcing and certifications of its Charmin toilet paper (the company has no climate pledges to speak of). But in practice, P&G has been clear-cutting one of the world's most important carbon sinks, Canada's boreal forest, in the name of softer TP.

We are all in this climate crisis together, which is why it's crucial to make sure our leaders and retailers keep their promises. Presidents have power, but so do corporations. Corporations have power, but so do consumers.

Reposted with permission from onEarth.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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