Addressing the Climate Threat

Climate change is a big deal. Everyone (except for those who still believe it isn’t really happening, and perhaps still smoke for health reasons) wants to seem like they are doing something about it. The UN just launched an effort to mobilize support for an aggressive deal at the December summit in Copenhagen. Even the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh made some noises about encouraging nations to make their own stuff instead of importing it from the US. It’s a baby step, but good attitude, G20!

Even some whose business models demand that they keep acting in ways that destroy the climate balance – oil companies, for instance – are pretending that they are actually preventing climate change. Concern about climate change is really pretty mainstream, it is an essential marketing technique, it is profitable. And it should be.

The UN’s approach “provides a framework for business leaders to advance practical solutions and help shape public policy and attitudes.” That is, it relies on business to clean up its own mess. I’m skeptical of this approach, but it might turn out that business realizes it they will be less able to profit in a devastated world, and is collectively willing to forgo some short-term profits.  That’s good. I hope I’m wrong.

Unfortunately, there is a fundamental problem that is generally overlooked: Capitalism is hard-wired to make increasing profits, and that is essentially in conflict with the need to consume less and generate less atmospheric carbon. It is possible to be efficient and design things in less harmful ways, but the investor-owned corporation has a genetic problem with conservation in that it always seeks to increase the bottom line. Capitalism has the growth logic of a cancer, which causes cells of one sort to invade the spaces of others.

On the other hand, cooperatives at least have a fundamental structure that is based on meeting the needs of members. This does not solve all the problems, and many co-ops have fallen prey to the siren song of growth for its own sake. More disturbing, some electric co-ops (including one that used to count me as a member) are still dragging their feet on the transition to green sources of energy, even as their national association is moving in the right direction. But at least decisions are made in a democratic way.

More generally, Cooperatives Europe has just launched its own coordinated initiative, Cooperatives Addressing the Climate Threat. The site acknowledges that co-ops are already doing great work, and seeks to coordinate that effort. One of their first goals is to cut emissions by 10% in 2010. That is a breath of fresh air when most plans aim to make changes by the time our grandchildren are all dead.

The project is led by Bob Burlson, the CEO of Britain’s the Co-operative Group. Burlson has the bona-fides, as he has led his massive co-op to launch a host of ambitious ecological projects. When I met him last year, he said that the co-op has not only decided to become carbon neutral in present operations; they have apparently set a goal of eventually offsetting all the carbon they’ve consumed in their160+ year history. I wish I could find more about that, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

Really addressing climate change won’t be easy since there is a large gap between global current consumption and sustainable levels of consumption. So if we are going to mitigate or reverse climate change, it will hurt in other ways. But as long as we allow decisions to be made by people who already control an unfair portion of the world’s resources, there’s little chance of a humane and just downshift in our consumption.

In contrast, cooperative structure means that the decision-makers are supposed to wear two hats; both the interest of the enterprise, and the interest of the communities in which it operates. It’s not for nothing that concern for community is one of the seven cooperative principles. We face a future of challenging decisions about how to allocate resources, and the more equality is involved throughout the global community, the better it is likely to turn out.

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2 Responses to Addressing the Climate Threat

  1. Bob Burlton says:

    I welcome the posting, but a small No of corrections, please. I was Boardchair of the Co-operative Group in the UK, not CEO. Am still chair of Co-operative Financial Services Ltd. (CFS), including the Co-operative Bank. CFS is aiming to be carbon negative and to contribute to some carbon offsetting to “pay back” for some of its past carbon footprint.
    We use renewable electricity extensively, powering more than 4,000 outlets this way, equating to 98% of our total electricity use. WE are on target to reduce our energy use by 25% between 2007 and 2012.
    ACT ! has been set up to encourage more co-ops and their members to to more of this to combat the Climate Threat. Visit for more.

  2. coopgeek says:

    It is very kind of you to drop by, and I appreciate the corrections. It’s not every day we hear straight from the horse’s mouth here. I do try to get things straight, and regret that I didn’t double check my faulty memory of your position(s).

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