The Climate Business Story Heats Up

It’s very much businesses that led us to the current climate crisis. At a time when climate coverage seems finally to be catching on with audiences, we should expect climate business stories to have wide appeal.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News / Getty Images

In December, we wrote in The Climate Beat about the urgency of the business side of the climate story, which indeed continues to gain speed and visibility. This week alone saw news that BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management firm, has announced it will shun fossil fuel stocks and press all companies to honor the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. The Bank of England, meanwhile, is preparing to “stress test” financial firms’ readiness for a future without fossil fuels. And Harvard Law School students are protesting the international firm Paul, Weiss, saying they won’t work for the firm as long as it continues to represent ExxonMobil in climate lawsuits.

BlackRock, which is based in New York, has long refused activist demands to align investment practices with climate science, and critics still question whether the firm’s new direction is anything more than performative greenwashing. But this week’s announcement, first reported in The New York Times, signals where the smart money is headed and how government policy, activist pressure, and media coverage can drive change. Follow-up reporting and sustained attention from the press can now hold BlackRock accountable for its pledge and perhaps shine a light on firms that will not follow suit. The Guardian, for example, has already reported that fellow investment giant Vanguard has declined to do so.

Readers, viewers and listeners might be interested to learn that climate-damaging companies have performed quite poorly over the past decade, as public concern and government focus on the climate threat have increased. According to the Times, energy companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 increased in value a mere 2 percent over the past decade, while “the broader S&P 500 nearly tripled.”

Oil companies’ insistence on staying the course has led Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, to warn for years about a “carbon bubble” threatening the world economy. Excess fossil fuel is currently counted as “wealth” on company balance sheets and stock market valuations; government and popular efforts to stem fossil fuel use might, in turn, combine to bankrupt companies and ruin investors, with ripple effects that would be felt across the global financial system. To avoid this doomsday scenario, the Bank of England will subject financial companies to “stress tests,” requiring companies to demonstrate their preparedness to weather a carbon bubble burst.

This dimension of the climate story presents an opportunity for news outlets to connect with audiences: Just as mom-and-pop investors and workers’ pension funds around the world were decimated by the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008, so would they be affected by an unwinding of the fossil fuel-based economy. Follow-up coverage can illuminate financial connections as the energy landscape shifts, identify vulnerabilities among specific areas and populations, and educate ordinary people about how best to protect themselves.

Too often in the media, we think of our business coverage as partitioned from the broader news of the day. But it’s very much businesses that led us to the current climate crisis. At a time when climate coverage seems finally to be catching on with audiences, we should expect climate business stories to have wide appeal.

Some additional coverage of note:

  • Climate change has tended to receive less than more attention in the Democratic national debates. But Tuesday night in Iowa, the climate finally got its due, Grist reports, even when moderators seemed to want to confine the issue to a single lane. “We’re gonna get to climate change, but I want to stay on trade,” Brianne Pfannenstiel, of The Des Moines Register, said, when an early answer from Sanders bridged the two subjects. “They are the same issue,” Sanders replied. A roughly 10-minute period of dedicated questioning on climate change and substantive discussions of the issue from candidates throughout the debate might signal that it will play an increasingly prominent role in debates to come.
  • The Guardian’s Observer spoke with environmental scientists about how they’re coping with the “emotional tsunami” of climate change. “Climate grief,” or “climate anxiety,” is a growing phenomenon that is sure to become more acute as the crisis deepens; these scientists suggest, to start, that it’s helpful to frame approach these feelings as we would any other any other form of grief or loss. “It’s really important that we find ways of communicating the grief that we’re feeling and work together to support each other,” one marine biologist told The Observer. (In December, The Believer, another CCNow partner, published an especially intimate look at the devastation climate grief has caused in the life of one Utah academic. “If your heart is breaking, you’re on my team,” the man told The Believer.)
  • A new study from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed Wednesday that the past decade was the warmest on recordThe Guardian places the report in useful context of a two additional reports from this week, one showing that 2019 saw all-time high ocean temperatures and another, from the World Economic Forum, estimating that all of the top five dangers the world will face in the coming decade are climate-related.
  • Canberra, Australia’s capital, issues an Air Quality Index to measure particulate matter concentration. An AQI of 150 to 200 is considered “very poor.” 200+ is “hazardous.” On New Year’s Day in Canberra, the AQI reached 4,650; “Every breath tasted like sticky tar,” Eric Byler writes for The Intercept, in a harrowing account of his and his family’s search for clean air in recent weeks. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being a paranoid alarmist,” Byler says. “Other times, I feel like I’m failing to protect my family from danger.”
  • Quartz reports that children may suffer an outsized impact from the smoke of The Australian bush fires , with one hospital near Sydney reporting a 30% increase in young patients presenting with asthma symptoms. Long-term effects may be even worse; the introduction of particulate matter into a child’s bloodstream can increase the risk of “heart, brain, respiratory, immune, and developmental conditions.”
  • “If Australia is burning from the effects of climate change, Venice is drowning.” CBS’s 60 Minutes visits the Italian city, which lately has experienced “more threatening and more frequent” flooding, to show another glaring example of how climate change effecting lives and livelihoods. At a time of accelerating sea level rise, CBS reports that Venice is a warning of what may be to come in coastal communities across the world.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week.