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Sep 2010
Business, Faith, and Climate Change: A Conversation with Mindy Lubber and Reverend Sally Bingham

Mindy Lubber (pictured left) is president of Ceres, the leading coalition of investors, environmental organizations, and other public interest groups working with companies and investors to build sustainability into the capital markets and address sustainability challenges such as global climate change. She also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a group of more than 90 investors representing approximately $10 trillion in assets that coordinates U.S. investor responses to the financial risks and opportunities of climate change. The Reverend Canon Sally Grover Bingham (pictured right), an Episcopal priest and canon for the environment, is founder and president of the Regeneration Project, which is focused on its Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) campaign, a religious response to global warming. The IPL campaign includes a national network of over 10,000 congregations with affiliated programs in 35 states. Here, they are interviewed by Jon Isham, guest editor of this issue of Solutions and coeditor of Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement (Island Press, 2007).

Jon Isham: When the catastrophe in the Gulf Coast showed no sign of abating, in the back of our brains, I think each of us was saying, “There must be some technical fix. BP and Obama, they have to come up with something”? And to some degree, do you think that this is also what happens when people think about climate change? That is, if we wait around long enough, smart people will figure it out.

Mindy Lubber: What we’re seeing is that neither the government nor the company has the technological answer. They may be able to piece it together and Lord knows they’re trying to do that.

There is a concept that we witnessed after the economic downfall: too big to fail. We don’t want things that are too big to fail. We want systems that work. If a technology is just too utterly devastating to break, then maybe we ought not to have it.

We ought to be thinking about our future technologies. The decentralized, renewable energy technology future is where we ought to be growing, and growing quickly.

Sustainability has taken hold as a business issue. We are no longer debating whether issues like climate change or oil spills are bottom line capital-market issues. But we haven’t gotten as far as agreeing about what needs to be done. There are companies that are willing to start the journey on sustainability and integrate it from the boardroom to the supply chain. But most of them are at 5, or 6, or 7 on a scale of 1 to 100 in their sustainability journey.

Isham: According to climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues, we have to, within a generation, move beyond coal burning as we know it. From your perspectives, is there a possibility of a real civic groundswell against coal?

Sally Grover Bingham: The same way Mindy wants to get sustainability as a normal business practice, I would like to see faith in action. People need to realize that yes, we need to pray—but that isn’t going to close coal mines and it’s not going to solve the climate problem and it’s not going to stop the oil spill. We have to try to influence public policy, trying, if we have to, civil disobedience.

Now for coal, we have a program in Virginia, in Kentucky, in North Carolina. People of faith understand that coal mining is dirty and dangerous. It’s time to put an end to the kind of coal mining that we’re doing, particularly when it blows the tops off mountains. If for no other reason, it’s an insult to the Creator.

Lubber: We’ve got a battle in the United States Congress—I believe it will be won or lost based on moral indignation. But we need to make sure the real facts get out: we’re losing the race on the clean energy technology revolution to China and others. We can capture that back, but we’ve got to act. The kinds of technologies that we need to be building are about decentralized energy. They’re about jobs in local communities. That’s what members of Congress need to be hearing.

We’ve got to send the right market signals, and that means putting a price on carbon because carbon very definitely has a cost. It’s just crucial that all of us make the case—business members, people of faith, veterans, all of whom have a very clear and special interest in stopping this scourge of climate change.

Isham: In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken writes about this big, unnamed movement of people who care about indigenous rights, economic development, and the environment. What should the public know about this movement and how it is really creating solutions?

Lubber: The landscape is changing. We’re seeing issues more clearly. When you emit carbon pollution, what happens in Boston impacts Rio de Janeiro. We are a world community, and looking at climate change unites us.

And this has allowed us to grow, whether it’s through grassroots organizations like 350.org or religious or business ones. It’s a united force—perhaps not as strong as we would like, but getting stronger—that sees the issue of climate change for what it is: it’s an issue of justice.

More intense storms, droughts, water crises can be grappled with within one state or one community, but really they’ve got to be looked at, thought about, and addressed as a world community. Can we build a just community? Over the last few years, thousands of organizations have taken on these issues and are fighting for change. Things are going in exactly the right direction.

Bingham: Just as Mindy talks about these issues uniting us as a world community, I’ve been saying lately that the time has come for the whole human species to redefine what it means to be human and what God’s purpose is for the species.

The growing awareness of these global problems means we’re going to have a shared human purpose. I already see this with the interfaith program that we’re running because we have Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, every mainstream religion sitting in the same room around the table, professing a love for the creation and expressing an obligation to take care of it.

And the good news is that here are religions that are often at odds with one another in total agreement. There’s no religious leader who ever stands up and says, “No, my job is to destroy creation!”

Lubber: Let me share an example of why I feel heartened. People laughed at us five years ago when we said global warming ought to be on the agenda of the largest investors and the largest Fortune 500 companies. Despite the fact that this has been a long battle, this year there were 99 shareholder resolutions filed by the investors saying to companies, “We want to see more action on climate change.” And those weren’t social activist investors necessarily. Some of the world’s largest investors understand fully that climate change will have a negative impact on their portfolio.

Bingham: It’s all part of an educational process. The prevailing ethos at Harvard Business School has been “more and bigger is better.” But what if it could be understood that more and bigger are really not better? This could be a shift in the way we think about how we live on the planet.

But one thing that really doesn’t work is talking about sacrifice. Young people don’t want to be told that they can’t live the same kind of life that their parents did. They want to be better. We have to show that being better is having what you need, being in great relationships with other people, and living responsibly.

Isham: Picking up on one of the featured articles in this special issue, is the prospect of geoengineering something that makes you afraid? Do you think it should be part of a broad discussion about getting to 350?

Lubber: In some ways it’s like asking, “Are we ready for technological changes?” I wouldn’t rule it out, and I don’t see any reason why anyone would. There’s good technology and bad technology. So it is not about good and bad, it is about “let’s examine them.”

In the UK and across Europe, when new chemicals are being brought to the market—the shampoo that my 15-year-old daughter might use—they use a precautionary principle. If the data aren’t compelling that the chemical is safe, they don’t use it. In the United States, we go in the opposite direction. If we haven’t proven that it’s toxic, well let’s go ahead and use it. That to me is the wrong amount of scrutiny and analysis.

Bingham: I really don’t think we should mess with nature. Now, we may have already gone so far that we have to use human technology to undo some of the damage we’ve already done. But in principle I just maintain that, for example, we shouldn’t be sending water to Palm Springs in California for golf courses. We need to adapt to the way nature was set up for us rather than trying to have nature adapted to us.

Honestly, if I were in charge of some big development to reshape the world, I’d try to put it back the way it was when it was first created.