Big Business Is Waking Up to Global Warming - but Is It Too Late?

Drought and increased water demand spurred by explosive population growth in the Southwest has caused the water level at Lake Mead, which supplies water to Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California, to drop. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesDrought and increased water demand spurred by explosive population growth in the Southwest has caused the water level at Lake Mead, which supplies water to Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California, to drop.

Terrible droughts. Vast wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. Extreme weather is one of the most obvious negative results of climate change, and when it reaches "natural disaster" proportions, it can affect everything from our food supply to our homes and businesses, to our overall economic well-being.

People who are concerned by climate change say all signs point to more extreme weather events like those noted above. Let's not forget that Superstorm Sandy was first dubbed "Frankenstorm" -- it shocked even weather experts with its unprecedented formation.

In fact, last year was the warmest year on record, and the second most extreme weather year in U.S. history, according to sustainability advocacy group Ceres.

After last year's frightening developments, which only foreshadow greater climate-related problems and dangers, Earth Day 2013 seems more important than ever. And lately all eyes are on big business and how companies can do more to stop harming Mother Earth.

Scary Math

This Earth Day, a documentary called "Do the Math" made its debut on a tour across the country. The man behind the documentary is Bill McKibben of the group, who in a recent interview with the Portland Tribune described the fossil fuel business as "a rogue industry," releasing five times more carbon than even conservative estimates consider safe.

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McKibben has launched a fossil fuels divestment campaign urging companies to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. According to, scientists and climate experts say that the CO2 level needs to be reduced from 392 parts per million -- the amount that is in our atmosphere right now -- to less than 350 parts per million.

He explained the premise of the documentary to the Tribune: "'Do The Math' refers to the simple and terrifying new reality of the climate crisis: The fossil fuel industry currently has 2,795 gigatons of carbon in their reserves, five times more than the maximum 565 gigatons the world can emit and keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal agreed to by nearly every nation on Earth, including the United States."

Many companies are making bigger stands to acknowledge and address climate change, but there are still many more that are not yet on board.

Companies Slow to Warm Up to Climate Change

When it comes to climate-related catastrophes, few industries have as much at stake as those involved in insurance.
According to a recent report from Ceres, only 23 insurers out of 184 examined have formed any comprehensive strategies to cope with climate change.

And while insurers will share the experience of being among the first to feel the pain, those responses they have made to global warming have been anything but uniform. For example, ACE (ACE) and Swiss Re are both putting money into climate change research, while Allstate (ALL) and Travelers (TRV) express "ambivalence" about the science involved, according to Ceres, and most companies are primarily relying on their Enterprise Risk Management strategies to build in any risk to the model.

There are, however, many other large companies stepping up to the plate in aggressive ways.

Thirty-three companies, including Starbucks (SBUX), eBay (EBAY), Ikea, Seventh Generation, Patagonia, and Annie's (BNNY), have all joined forces with Ceres' advocacy coalition, Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy. The coalition is pushing policymakers to pass energy and climate legislation.

The companies that have joined have signed a Climate Declaration, which asks the U.S. government to implement a national policy to combat climate change. Both corporations and individuals can sign the declaration.

The organization claims: "Tackling climate change is one of America's greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century (and it's simply the right thing to do)."

Changing for Good and Profit

It's not only the right thing to do, but also the financially smart thing to do. Plenty of companies are coming to the realization that working to save the planet can also save them money -- and even make them profits.

Consumer giants like Procter & Gamble (PG) acknowledge that changing business practices with an eye on sound environmental policies lowers costs and waste. They've also been reporting on their progress at cutting greenhouse gas emissions and water waste, using renewable energy and recycled materials, and letting no consumer or manufacturing waste end up in landfills.

Some smaller companies are trying to move us into the future with greener alternatives. Take biofuels company Solazyme (SZYM), which uses plant-based sugars and microalgae to make alternative fuels, or SolarCity (SCTY), a solar company that's been making major headway into business and consumer markets.

And consider Tesla (TSLA), whose founder, Elon Musk, has made pointed statements about reducing America's oil addiction. Tesla's gorgeous electric cars are aimed to help consumers do just that. Talk about good for Mother Earth, the wallet, and Tesla's bottom line.

Climate change's ill effects have made themselves known, but the beginnings of progress can be seen on the horizon.

Fortunately, corporate America, investors, and regular people all seem to be coming around to the idea that we can work on greening up the planet -- and maybe even saving the world.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Starbucks and Solazyme. The Motley Fool recommends eBay, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay, Solazyme, Starbucks, and Tesla Motors.