Climate Business: Chu’s appeal is xenophobic, but it might just work
Nobel prize winner Steven Chu: “What I am trying to tell the American public is that this is an economic opportunity…”
This quote is from a speech given yesterday by US Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “We face a choice today. Are we going to continue America’s innovation leadership or are we going to fall behind?” Chu said in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington.
But the message may not be aimed at the public, but at politicians who have forgotten not only which side their bread is buttered, but who makes the butter in the first place. The twin assaults of climate change and peak oil are buttressed by formidable commercial advances in two of the most populous nations on earth – India and, of course, China.
While the US public may filter their news and views through very parochial preconceptions, one can forsee a significant problem for the US political system that a large proportion of the US public remain blissfully unaware of. For although the funding and lobbying of both political aspirants and encumbents is certainly a corrupting force – dollar democracy – it isn’t going to change any time soon. So some acknowledgement of the interests of the donors must be made if the electorial coffers are to be routinely topped up. And getting hold of that money may become rather difficult if those running for office do so on a platform that inherently disadvantages the very people they ask for money.
As commercial institutions belatedly realise that the polarised debate about climate is entirely ideological, and has no meaning in the boardroom – where profit is the only thing that matters – they are considering strategies that are better suited to address the dual imperatives of the environment and peak oil. Over the last few years, business lobbies have been quietly shifting their focus, as ideological opposition to AGW mitigation has been replaced with a pragmatism in keeping with the only imperative that matters to the business community and the shareholders who depend on it – making a profit.
So it is that one by one, the big institutions, driven by long-term forecasts by pension fund managers and insurance companies (those parts of the commercial world obliged by the nature of their business to eschew short-termism) are coming round to the ‘green’ way of thinking, although I suspect this gradual evolution is not driven by care for the environment, but the same quest for continued growth and new market opportunities that the current paradigm will no longer support.
So Chu is right: appeals to the instincts of the business community – both in terms of keeping up through innovation, and a natural distaste for the inevitable eclipse of their historic predominance by a bunch of foreigners. As US Democrat Congressman Jay Inslee memorably put it (admittedly lifting the phrase from Republican Bob Inglis): “China is going to eat our lunch”. This is hardly the dignified rhetoric we might hope for, but it is telling the both a dem and republican representative share the sentiment, and target not the public, but the business community. (Worth noting too is that the republican Inglis could only speak out once it was clear he wasn’t going back to Washington any time soon – see what I mean about paying the piper?).
So here’s the tricky bit: those staunch friends of big money, the Republican party, are deeply invested in thwarting any kind of attempt to address climate change. They are also – whether they acknowledge it or not – wholly beholden to the same business interests who will suffer the most. The pain will be felt in many ways. Economic instability, loss of market share, reduced innovation revenue (for the first time ever, last year the US Patent office registered more foreign patents than domestic, a sure sign of things to come if the US doesn’t gear up for the coming revolution), increased energy costs, less disposable domestic income, market volatility, border conflicts, water and resource shortages – the list goes on, but the point is clear.
China’s ascendancy is at the expense of the US, not parallel and equal to it. New markets are not developing fast enough for the US to keep pace, so China is indeed ‘eating America’s lunch’. Appeals to a form of commercial xenophobia are hardly edifying, but hey – if that’s what it takes to shake America, and particularly the Republican leadership, out of their complacency, then I guess we’ll have to settle for an ignorant solution to a stupidly intractable problem.