Reflections on Climate Leadership in 2019

By Beth Gibbons

Next month, the North American adaptation community will meet in the Midwest US. Comprised of vanguards and newcomers, we will converge in Madison to share strategies, lessons learned, successes, failures, friendships, beer and cheese – it is Wisconsin, after all!

This past week, a different climate community convened on the seawall of the Inner Harbor of Baltimore at the Climate Leadership Conference. Convened by C2ES and The Climate Registry, it is the descendent of an event once hosted by the EPA by the same name.  However, unlike past years, resilience and climate adaptation were on the agenda–both literally and figuratively–for the conference attendees.

At ASAP, we have seen a marked increase in the private sector engagement in the climate resilience and adaptation conversation. We are observing shifts in the climate resilience marketplace (both demand for and support of services) and in the shifting demographics of the ASAP Membership.

Attending events like the Climate Leadership Conference and our stalwart National Adaptation Forum, we can translate lessons between events and achieve more robust discussions with our members. In that spirit, here are the top 5 observations from the ASAP Booth at the Climate Leadership Conference 2019:

  1. Companies want climate resilience (and sustainability) integrated throughout their entire operations. Kevin Rabinovitch, VP for  Global Sustainability at Mars Inc., noted that it’s not enough for climate resilience to the job of his 20 person team. Rather he wants to see principles of resilience (and sustainability) integrated throughout Mars Incorporated’s 113,000 employees.
  2. Mitigation vs. Adaptation is still being talked about. While there was robust discussion on the role of corporations advocating for climate action, there was also an expressed concern that ‘if we can only advance one policy goal – it has to be mitigation’.
  3. The lack of US federal leadership is felt across the world. When asked about whether the US is losing its reputation as a leader,  Cathy Woollums of Berkshire Hathaway Energy quipped,“Sometimes, when you want to be leader, you have to lead.”
  4. New legal challenges are coming fast and furious.
  5. TCFD – the Bloomberg driven, international framework for corporate risk disclosure is creating a pathway into this work.  However, the path through climate financial disclosure remains fertile ground for innovation and exploration.

I also noticed a few things were missing from this conference:

  1. The financial markets were missing. I don’t think there were any speakers from S&P,  Moody’s or Fitch – the three domestic rating agencies. Despite support from Bloomberg, their team kept a low profile throughout the event.
  2. The conversations were sorely missing the federal perspective. At a conference once hosted by Environmental Protection Agency and hosted less than 40 miles from the D.C. border, the lack of federal agency staff was striking.
  3. The crowd was – well – not young. While Greta Thunberg and the youth movement is dominating the global climate conversation, this conference was still about top down leadership from well-seasoned professionals.
  4. The attendees, and especially the speakers, were conspicuously white. This was definitely a crowd where the word equity was more likely to be in a sentence with ‘balance sheet’ and ‘profit’ than ‘justice’ and ‘race’.

I do not point out these missing groups to criticize or diminish the value of the conversations and interactions that were taking place. However, throughout the adaptation and resilience field, we have learned that when we change who is the room, we change the conversation. When we change the conversation, we change the actions. We also know that diversity equals profitability, and that is an equity outcome we all like to achieve.

The public sector was never going to solve this challenge on its own. There was an appetite for action and a different kind of know-how on display in Baltimore last week. Now, more than ever, I am grateful for ASAP being an inclusive community that can bridge these events, connect conversations, and drive the innovation and excellence that we need across this critical and diverse field of practice.