ECONOMICS:

Risky Business team spreads out in D.C. to spread word on climate costs

The high-profile team behind the "Risky Business" report on the economic costs of climate change fans out in Washington, D.C., today, spreading its message about what it sees as a looming crisis.

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and other members of the project's Risk Committee will review report findings with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and "senior White House leadership," the Obama administration said.

The group will learn this morning whether President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden will visit that meeting, said Matt Lewis, Risky Business' communications director.

Gregory Page, former CEO and current chairman of the board of Cargill Inc. and part of the Risk Committee, planned to confer with U.S. senators and House members. Lewis did not know which lawmakers Page planned to visit.

Page also is slated to meet with American Farm Bureau Federation and Corn Growers Association members. Risk Committee member Henry Cisneros, President Clinton's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, planned to talk with Mortgage Bankers Association members.

It's part of a press that will continue this summer, as team members attend business group conferences in several states, Lewis said.

Risky Business members "just don't feel like the business and financial community have got this on their radar," Lewis said, referencing climate change financial risks. "We want to make sure that the folks who should have this on their radar have this on their radar. That's our main objective."

The meetings with the White House and Congress, he said, are because "they also represent to business community."

At a press briefing yesterday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked about the propriety of having Steyer at today's planned meeting, given that he is a wealthy donor to Democratic candidates.

"I have no misgivings about the individuals who are participating in that meeting," Earnest said. "Their political activities notwithstanding, the administration is committed to making progress in addressing the causes of climate change and reducing carbon pollution. That's something that Mr. Steyer has obviously well-known views on, but there are a lot of other people with well-known views on this that the White House is consulting."

The Risky Business team outreach takes place as the report urged businesses to rally together to deal with the effects of climate change. Sea-level rise, extreme heat and crop failures could cost the country several billion dollars annually, it said. In one scenario, more than $701 billion worth of existing coastal property could be below mean sea levels by 2100 (ClimateWire, June 24).

"We call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping reduce climate risks," the report says. "We hope the Risky Business Project will facilitate this action by providing critical information about how climate change may affect key sectors and regions of our national economy.

"This is only a first step, but it's a step toward getting America on a new path leading to a more secure, more certain economic future," it adds.

Less clout for big business?

Some in the business community were optimistic that the report would "sound the alarm for the latecomers to the climate pollution reduction party."

"This sober, fact-based assessment paints a very real picture of the potential loss of property and income business owners face if we don't take meaningful, collective action to address climate change," said Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy. "The high-level messengers for the 'Risky Business' report will have a lot of influence with CEOs of companies."

It's not clear, however, how much Risk Committee members or businesses wanting action can achieve in D.C., one analyst said.

There is too much fear among Republicans that backing policy changes on climate change would trigger a primary election challenge, said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Because of a wave of populism and the strength of the tea party right now, Ornstein said, "big business is seen as a part of the problem more than it is a part of the solution. They just don't have the clout that they used to have."

If the small business community urged climate action, he said, that "might be a different matter, but we're not there yet."

"All of these [climate] costs, even if you can make a very strong case for them, which they can, even if it becomes very clear we're dealing with disastrous economic costs," some Republicans still insist warming is a hoax, he added.

Lewis said that the Risky Business effort isn't "coming to Washington to fix Washington."

"The question is really ... there's going to be businesses that see significant self-interest in acting on their own, whether that's engaging in policy or not," he said.

Whether those businesses will have influence depends on "their stridency, their urgency and where, frankly, they're located," Lewis said. A lawmaker who ignores a business in his or her district is "probably going to have a problem."

"Once you get American business involved in this process, how much influence can it have?" Lewis added. "That's a fair question. I don't think anybody can really answer that at this stage. We're going to find out."

Risky Business members at the same time are calling for changes in the rules on what publicly traded companies must tell investors about climate change. At the New York City event at which the report was unveiled yesterday, Paulson, Rubin and ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) said companies should document their risks tied to warming's effects.

"If businesses had to disclose that, then that would become an incentive for businesses to have to act," Rubin said.

Steyer said the calculation of a value of a company should include how it's responding to climate risks.

Some business interests push back

A few conservative business groups reacted sharply to the report and the Risky Business outreach efforts.

American Petroleum Institute (API), the trade group for oil and natural gas companies, urged policymakers in a statement "to consider the proven environmental and economic benefits of America's oil and natural gas industry when weighing the risks claimed by opponents of U.S. energy production."

"America is now the world's leading producer of clean-burning natural gas, demonstrating that economic prosperity and environmental progress are not mutually exclusive," API President and CEO Jack Gerard said. "From 2000 to 2012, America's oil and natural gas industry invested more in zero- and low-emissions technologies than the federal government and nearly as much as all other industries combined."

Tom Pyle, president of American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit focused on free-market advocacy and partly funded by energy companies, said he didn't buy that the report is apolitical.

"Although not explicitly stated, the goal of this report is to promote a carbon dioxide pricing scheme such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which, if implemented, would levy huge costs on the American people," Pyle said. "This report is yet another PR scare tactic to convince people that our most reliable energy resources are bad for us, when, in fact, the opposite is true. America's environment, air quality and standard of living is better in large part because of our energy use."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business did not respond to requests for comment.

Other industry groups, however, said many businesses would rather have a federal climate policy than the current patchwork of state rules on carbon emissions.

"The best thing that the business community in the United States could do is help galvanize public opinion around the urgency of devising and embracing a long-term carbon strategy," said David Foster, president of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of 15 of large unions and environmental organizations. "If we did that, we would be able to make a lot of progress very quickly."

Asked why businesses, if they accept that there are costs from climate change, haven't already galvanized public opinion, Foster said that "their short-term priorities butt up against their long-term priorities," particularly when they are public and are focused on quarterly profits.

One political strategist said voters will play a role in deciding what happens.

"The most important demographic slice from the electorate this November is working women 18 to 50 years of age -- in other words, 'moms,' and moms care," Erick Mullen, managing director at Mercury, said in an email. "Moms care about the future ... and they care about the future of the planet."

"The debate about energy and the environment will be shaped into two camps over the summer and into the fall: science deniers with parochial economic interests versus everyone else," Mullen said.

The "Risky Business" report can be used to educate right now, he said, then to motivate "around the time kids are going back to school. Those back-to-school moms are going to make the difference in who controls the United States Senate and this report is going to push them toward more progressive and science-based policies to the benefit of Democratic office-seekers."

Twitter: @annecmulkern | Email: amulkern@eenews.net

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