Global Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Conversation: Energy Industry Where Are You?

Energy industries have been reluctant participants in the conversations on global climate change and greenhouse gas pollution.  In fact, some have sought to stymie the public discourse by promoting anti-climate change information and trying to limit rules or regulations for greenhouse gas emissions.  This approach may have been successful for the industry in the past, but it is unlikely to be useful in the future.

In the U.S. and the world, there is growing frustration over the lack of action on global climate change.  No longer is climate change viewed as a theory.  People are experiencing first-hand the impacts of odd weather and extreme events.  They are concerned for their future and the future of their children.

In the New York area, Hurricane Sandy served as a potent example of the problem this fall.  New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg publicly urged for national action on climate change a few days after the storm.  Indeed, the storm could have influenced the national election.

It is growing more likely that significant climate change policy will emerge in the coming years that will influence the energy sector.

In a recent poll published by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, 64% of suburban U.S. residents think that global warming is a serious problem.  More Americans are aware of the problem and have made the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Yet, there is little U.S. policy in place to deal with the problem and our national leaders have not engaged the public on the topic in any meaningful way in years.

Is there any doubt who the public will blame?

Some in the industry have figured this out and are seeking to make climate change issues prominent within their business model.

As an exercise in some of my classes, I ask my students to review the Websites of the major energy producing companies to examine how they communicate to the public about climate change issues.  Their results are always informative.

Chevron, for example, has a series of pages dedicated to climate change information.  They state clearly that they recognize that global climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions and that is a serious problem.  The pages detail a variety of reduction strategies that range from improving efficiency in their operations to developing greenhouse gas sequestration projects.

And they are adding emerging energy technologies to their portfolio.  Importantly, they are not blaming consumers for the emissions of greenhouse gases by focusing attention on the consumers of their products.

Other companies take widely different approaches.  They fall, more or less, within three strategies.  The first strategy is to make a case for policy that is favorable for the industry.  The second strategy is to focus on the emissions of consumers of energy, and the third strategy is to state nothing at all.

Let’s review the way that the public looks at these approaches.

First, focusing an energy company Website on greenhouse gas policy makes tremendous sense—if it is policy that will be meaningful for the consumer.  Unfortunately there is tremendous public distrust of the energy industry.  The Websites of some companies that focus largely on the negative impacts of greenhouse gas policy on the industry do nothing to help this perception.

In the recent Kivalina vs. ExxonMobil et. al. case, the plaintiffs tried to make a case that some energy companies suppressed information linking greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  While the case was dismissed on a number of grounds, the public perception of energy companies as organizations unwilling to budge on greenhouse gas policy stands.

That is why it is important for energy companies to think more about the public good and less about corporate interests in their conversations around greenhouse gas policy.  The public understands the importance of protecting an organization from poor public policy.  But, the energy industry needs to develop and communicate sound policy that will protect the public.

The second strategy noted above is to focus attention on reducing greenhouse gas emissions of energy consumers.  “Consumers” of course translates to the public, thereby diverting responsibility from energy producers to consumers—individuals who drive to work and heat or cool their homes.

This strategy seems logical on first glance.  Of course we all consume energy.  But we all do not have the technology or ability to reduce our emissions.  While it is worthwhile to seek emission reductions at all stages of use, energy companies have the resources and talent to find key solutions that the public or its government cannot.

And consumers understand this.  They are looking to the industry for leadership.

The final strategy employed by energy companies on their Websites is to be silent on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  Instead, the sites focus attention on other environmental issues where organizations are making a positive impact.

This old-school approach to global climate change seems anachronistic in today’s world.  I doubt that they will be taken seriously by the public or by policy leaders in the coming years.  Unless they change, it is unlikely that they will be part of policy development.  Instead of helping to craft sound solutions, they will be impacted by policy decisions they did not participate in designing.

In the coming years, the public is unlikely to be patient with companies that deny that climate change is real or that seek to stop or limit meaningful climate change policy.  Companies that embrace the problem and seek to find real solutions and concomitant policy will thrive in the long-term.