When former vice president and climate change crusader Al Gore took the stage at the Social Good Summit Monday, he had some powerful numbers to share with the audience: the 12 hottest years ever recorded have occurred in the last 15 years. August was the 342nd month in a row in which temperatures exceeded the 20th century average. And air pollution traps as much heat in the atmosphere as would be given off by 400,000 atomic bombs going off everyday.
The picture Gore painted was, no doubt, a grim one, but he also told the room full of philanthropists and business leaders gathered at New York City's 92nd St. Y why he believes climate change is a massive opportunity for innovators around the world.
"When I was 13, I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy when he announced the mission to send someone to the moon and bring him back safely. I remember older people saying it's probably impossible," he says, "Eight years and two months later, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The average age of the NASA systems engineers that day was 26 years old, which means they were 18 when that promise was made. Today's 18 year olds are waiting for this generation with its hands on the controls in this world to take action. Let's."
Gore also used the opportunity to plug two new initiatives launched by The Climate Reality Project, the non-profit he founded. One, called WhatILove.org, is a site that lets people search cities, goods, and resources they love to see how they're being impacted by climate change. The other, 24 Hours of Reality: The Cost of Carbon, is an event taking place in Los Angeles this October that will urge people to rally around carbon pricing. "We have to put a price on carbon," Gore said on stage. "It's simply not acceptable for major companies to mimic the unethical strategy of the tobacco companies in presenting blatantly false information in order to protect a business model... Dirty energy causes dirty weather. We've got to put a price on the dirty energy that causes the dirty weather."
After a series of panels on climate change, Gore returned the stage with a challenge for the innovators seated before him: "Years from now, if all these horrible consequences have unfolded and people feel despair, they'll ask us, 'What were you thinking?'" he said. "I want them to look back and say, 'How did you find the moral courage to face the crisis that people said was impossible to solve?'"
Following Gore's talk, I sat down with his colleague Maggie L. Fox, CEO of The Climate Reality Project, to discuss why she believes climate change issues are so critical to entrepreneurs.
Why should Inc. readers, who are mostly business owners, care about climate change?
If you just look at weather, not sea level rise or health, if you just look at weather, what we're looking at is a dramatic shift in weather that will continue to wipe businesses out. Look at what just happened in my hometown of Boulder. The flooding we just had was in no way predicted. Businesses around there didn't have flood insurance. They didn't think they needed it. An event like that can take you from being in a good place to totally wiped out. Devastated. They have no idea when they're going to reopen, if ever.
Business owners need to realize that the effects of climate change aren't coming tomorrow. They're already here. Any business in any part of the world needs to say, "I don't want to live in a world where the natural order is so uncertain that I don't have a shot if I'm exposed to one of these events. I could lose my footing completely." Small businesses, even more than large corporations who set buying power, need to be the first voices speaking up about this because of their individual vulnerability. They're just not backed up.
You and former Vice President Gore have spoken a lot about putting a price on carbon. Why is that important to entrepreneurs?
One of the reasons we're talking about a price on carbon is because that drives innovation. All those ideas, those techonologies, there would be a funding source for them. Now, that money is just going into the pockets of the fossil fuel companies that are currently dumping 90 million tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere everyday without paying. I'm paying, you're paying. They're not. We have to change this. Then there'd be a funding source for these entrepreneurial ideas. There's an extraordinary number of people out there working on new ideas, but there's no funding for them. We need a funding source. Small businesses, in particular, should be jamming for that.
Are there any specific new technologies that excite you guys right now?
The innovation taking place in the clean energy space is phenomenal. There's a narrative out there that renewables are dead, but solar cell prices have dropped to a point where it's cheaper than coal-fired power plants. There are technological advantages in every single sector, but what's important is the price is falling, and now we can do it at scale.
For entrepreneurs, climate change is the biggest threat and opportunity that has ever been, in co-equal measure. Consider that the first computer was the size of a warehouse, and now we have mini iPads. This technology wasn't available a very short time ago. The same thing is going to happen in clean energy. The entrepreneurial possibiliies are endless. The threat is significant, but the opportunity is greater than the threat--if we seize it, rather than ignore it.