A cartoon circulating during COP15 showed a climate denier in the audience gesturing to a PowerPoint at the front of the hall that listed “Energy Independence. Preserve rainforests. Green jobs. Livable cities. Renewables. Clean water, air. Healthy children. Etc, etc.”
“But what if it’s a big hoax,” the skeptic grumbles, “and we create a better world for nothing?”
Indeed. What if!
The COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen could have gone one of three ways: breakthrough, breakdown, or something in between. The odds favored something in between, and that’s what we got, with players and analysts still arguing over how good or bad the outcome was.
What do we know, in the midst of the murky outcome?

  • There is growing recognition, despite the vagueness, that this issue is real and important. The fact that 192 countries came together at all is some measure of progress on this issue.
  • On the other hand, there is no evident sense of urgency – from any of the major players – comensurate with the scale of the challenge

What does it mean for you? I’ll get to that in a minute.
Observers differ in their opinions of COP15. Jonathan Lasch of WRI felt that the “last-minute agreement at Copenhagen marks turning point for the world”.
Greenpeace and the Wall Street Journal were jointly skeptical, pointing to carbon price drops as a signal that Copenhagen was either a “cop-out” or a “disappointment”.

The New Yorker
(remembering, perhaps, Ben Bradlee’s admonition to “follow the money”) highlighted China’s aggressive renewable energy program. Watch what we do, not what we say?
If [national] governments won’t act, Bill Becker says, “businesses, consumers & communities must step up.”
And in fact that’s happening. As Terry Tamminen observes in Copenhagen Coal in the Stocking,

The Gang of Five may… have done the world a favor by blowing up the UN process in Copenhagen, because it cleared the way for parallel international alliances to blossom. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the creation of the R20, a new “sub-national UN” (starting with 20 regions of states/provinces/cities) that will coordinate the work of these climate leadership governors and mayors, but with a major difference from the old UN. The R20 will set high standards for cutting carbon and creating green economies, then invite others to join — if they can meet the same goals. By contrast, the UN has struggled because it needs every nation in the tent and can only get things done when all 192 agree — something that rarely happens unless goals are watered down to the lowest common denominator.

Closer to home, the White House is “poised” to require climate impact studies for new Federal actions.
I ended my pre-COP15 post last month with:

The only question is this: What does leadership in a carbon-conscious economy look like?
Ultimately, the coming carbon regulations give executives the same choices they’ve always had: resist, follow, or lead. This time, though, it’s for real — and the stakes are stratospherically high.
The good news: this changing business climate offers an opportunity for smart companies — like yours? — to deploy integrated, game-changing sustainability strategies that leapfrog regulations to drive exceptional environmental performance, profits, market share and brand value.
Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg — a doorway into a world of new possibilities.

But what does all that mean for you? Let’s bring it down to earth, for your company, state, city or household. How do you remove the apparent “economic necessity” of tinkering with the climate? What’s your path of action?

  • Understand your footprint. How big are your carbon emissions? Where in your operations and supply chain do they come from? How are they changing over time? (Precise analysis can be time-consuming and expensive; fortunately, new rapid analysis techniques can bring you actionable conclusions quickly.)
  • Eliminate it, profitably. Earth’s living systems are carbon neutral; what would it take for your company to do the same? And remember: Carbon emissions are proxies for your spend on energy, materials and movement of materials; done right, reducing emissions will also put money in your pocket.
  • Use the challenge as a driver of innovation and engagement.
    Tamminen again: “So what does this mean to businesses, investors, and consumers? Carbon will have a price globally by 2012. Period. [T]he price of everything will change — some going up and others going dramatically down.” If that’s the case, how will you invent strategies, operating practices and new offers in the marketplace that will put your company on the right side of those changes?
  • But don’t get stuck on carbon. It’s not the only issue of import. Water is close behind as “the next carbon”. Biodiversity, hunger, health care and many others hover in the wings. (In the face of that array, some throw up their hands and say “it’s too much.” Some say “let’s focus on just one issue now, and deal with the others later.” Some — count me and Natural Logic among them — say “systems problems require systems solutions.”
  • Reject “lowest common denominator” compromise, the compromise of settling for equitably shared misery; embrace the compromise of harnessing shared concerns to drive innovation that embraces and transcends differences.

Here’s how I put in back in 1996:

In practical terms, that means that competitive advantage shifts to those who can learn to prosper economically without depending on jiggering the global climate…for whom tinkering with the climate is no longer an economic necessity.

Or, in other words:
But don’t wait.