The business of environmentalism

Jeremy Leggett, Founder and Executive Chairman of Solarcentury, responds to critics in the Guardian: A persistent theme of some comments on my articles is a sense of outrage that the Guardian allows me to write in their pages knowing I am a business person who founded a solar company. All my fears about climate change, oil depletion, the parlous state of oil infrastructure, gas supply, unsequestered coal burning, re-nuclearisation – indeed any subject in the gamut of energy and environment – must surely be discounted, in the minds of the irate bloggers, because of my vocation. I work for a solar company, the thinking goes, therefore all I can possibly be interested in is selling solar products. The inference that I manufacture my concerns about environment and energy security in the interests of the sales pitch is often implicit, and sometimes explicit.

How likely is that? In my first career, I was a creature of the oil industry, a fully paid up hydrocarbon enthusiast searching for oil and studying how it forms. But as my Cif profile shows, much of my research was on the history of oceans, ancient climates being part of that. Therein lay the source of my early concerns about climate change, which were so strong I quit my lucrative career for the meagre salary of an environmental campaigner. My concerns about fossil fuels are rooted in, but not limited to, their proven role in fuelling global warming. For anyone except a diehard cynic, my track record surely demonstrates that the concern is genuine. My concerns about nuclear are similarly rooted in, but not limited to, its inability to address global warming in the timeframe we need. Global society has to act meaningfully within a decade if we are to get ourselves on the road to deep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the UK, nuclear advocates themselves now admit new nuclear electricity wouldn’t reach the grid before 2021.

In 1996, I concluded that, vital as environment groups are, the business world and its interaction with consumers would be the most likely arena in which to look for breakthroughs in fighting global warming. So, I am in business to continue my campaigning, and unashamedly so. Why should the Guardian not carry my thoughts on occasion, given the varied experiences I have had vocationally, and the things they qualify me to comment on? The paper regularly carries articles by people who hold views on energy policy that are the opposite of my own. That the same can’t be said of climate change is because the argument has been won: the earth is manifestly round, as it were, not flat.

I chose solar for my campaigning in business not because it is a magic bullet – there are no magic bullets when it comes to climate change and energy security, as I am careful to point out in articles. But solar is a key member of the renewable and efficient-energy family. I focus on it in an effort to create a microcosm of what a survival-bound global society might look like, in a vital fraction of its sustainable energy regime. Stated another way, my colleagues at Solarcentury and I are trying to light a candle for hope.

My belief is that there is a strong case for businesses generally to take on more of the attributes of campaigning organisations. Because global warming is moving so fast, and because of the feedback we risk awakening as we hike the planetary thermostat, society is in the process of fighting for a survivable future. The polls around the world show that growing numbers of people appreciate this. If companies want to win and maintain the trust of customers and staff, they will increasingly need to act on this megatrend in society in a meaningful way. A few years from now, I predict, companies that campaign on climate change and earn trust by virtue of being demonstrably sincere, will find they are generating considerable amounts of what the marketeers call brand value. As this dynamic evolves further, it will embed the business of campaigning in the DNA of most corporate boards.

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