It was 8 degrees in Minneapolis on a recent January day, and out on Interstate 394, snow whipped against the windshields of drivers on their morning commutes. But inside the offices of Cargill, the food conglomerate, Greg Page, the company’s executive chairman, felt compelled to talk about global warming.
“It would be irresponsible not to contemplate it,” Mr. Page said, bundled up in a wool sport coat layered over a zip-up sweater. “I’m 63 years old, and I’ve grown up in the upper latitudes. I’ve seen too much change to presume we might not get more.”
Mr. Page is not a typical environmental activist. He says he doesn’t know — or particularly care — whether human activity causes climate change. He doesn’t give much serious thought to apocalyptic predictions of unbearably hot summers and endless storms.
But over the last nine months, he has lobbied members of Congress and urged farmers to take climate change seriously. He says that over the next 50 years, if nothing is done, crop yields in many states will most likely fall, the costs of cooling chicken farms will rise and floods will more frequently swamp the railroads that transport food in the United States. He wants American agribusiness to be ready.
Mr. Page is a member of the Risky Business Project, an unusual collection of business and policy leaders determined to prepare American companies for climate change. It’s a prestigious club, counting a former senator, five former White House cabinet members, two former mayors and two billionaires in the group. The 10 men and women who serve on the governing committee don’t agree on much. Some are Democrats, some Republicans.
Even when it comes to dealing with climate change, they have very different perspectives. Some advocate a national carbon tax, some want to mandate companies to disclose their climate risks. Mr. Page suggests that the world may be able to get by without any mandatory rules at all. Some members want to push investors to divest from fossil fuel companies. Several favor construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, while one member has spent more than $1 million lobbying to stop it. But they all do agree on one issue: Shifts in weather over the next few decades will most likely cost American companies hundreds of billions of dollars, and they have no choice but to adapt.
The committee started in June as a way to promote a study that it commissioned, “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” But it has since evolved into a loose network of missionaries who publicize the report’s ominous data far and wide, in talks at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, briefings with the American Farm Bureau Federation and breakfast meetings with local chambers of commerce.
On Jan. 23, the group released the second chapter of the Risky Business project, focused on the effects on the Midwest: “Heat in the Heartland.” A report on California is next. With $1.7 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation and others, the group is hiring a full-time staff.
The group is led by three men: Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire whose super PAC spent $73 million last year attacking Republicans who denied climate change and promoting awareness of the issue; Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs and the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush; and Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor and the billionaire founder of the financial information company Bloomberg L.P. Each spent $500,000 to commission the Risky Business research and each has his own particular goals for the initiative, all of which would be served by making the climate threat feel real, immediate and potentially devastating to the business world.
Mr. Paulson wants companies to implement and regulators to enforce disclosure rules regarding climate risk and carbon emissions for publicly traded companies. Mr. Bloomberg views the work as a way to spur city governments and local businesses to work together on climate issues and not “kick the can down the road,” he said. Mr. Steyer sees the dollars-and-cents research as a way to neutralize conservatives’ arguments that environmental regulation always hurts business.
“One side argues morality and polar bears, and the other side argues jobs,” Mr. Steyer said. “You’re never going to win with polar bears.”
To understand how the Risky Business Project came to be, it’s helpful to look at how the climate change battle has been waged over the years. In the early days, discussion was focused on fixing the problem and staving off disaster. This has been the strategy environmentalists have used to respond to all sorts of risks for years: Scientists identify the harm, publicize it, debate with the responsible industry and expect legislators to take action.
The very idea of thinking about how to adapt to drastic environmental changes was basically considered taboo, an acknowledgment of defeat. “Earlier on, you wouldn’t use the ‘A’ word in polite conversation,” said Henry D. Jacoby, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T. and a climate policy researcher — the “A” word being “adaptation.” “People thought you weren’t serious about mitigation. ‘Oh, you’re giving up.’ ”
But climate change defied that playbook. There was no immediate crisis to point to — no bird eggs laced with DDT, no acid rain corroding city monuments. There was no one industry to target or overwhelming constituency to push legislators.
“The rationalist, evidence-driven, faith in the political process approach to solving environmental problems has been really effective in many realms,” said Hal Harvey, who advised the Risky Business group and is chief executive of Energy Innovation, a green policy firm. “But it has done bupkis for climate change.”
Indecision and indifference have prevailed instead. A majority of Americans in 2014 surveys by Pew Research and Gallup acknowledged climate change was happening, and 83 percent of Americans say that without emissions reductions, global warming will be a problem in the future, according to a January survey conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the environmental group Resources for the Future. But in survey after survey, those same Americans rank climate change at or near the bottom of pressing issues, far behind jobs, the economy and health care.
In the meantime, powerful lobbies, including fossil fuel groups, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, stand in the way of regulation. Climate change has become a partisan issue — a cause for conservatives who fear government overreach.
It was in this context that in November 2012, Mr. Steyer convened a meeting at his Pescadero, Calif., ranch. The month before, he had stepped down from running his hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management, to devote himself to the environment. He wanted to devise a way to fight climate change more effectively, and he had assembled some highly regarded thinkers to help him brainstorm. Attendees included the environmentalists Bill McKibben and Mr. Harvey, and the political strategists John D. Podesta and Chris Lehane.
As cattle grazed on native grasses outside, and a water-filtering eco-sculpture burbled on the patio, the participants tossed ideas around the kitchen table. Mr. McKibben discussed his fossil fuel divestment campaign. Others suggested stoking a social media groundswell. One suggested making life hard for climate change-denying politicians (the latter idea became the basis for Mr. Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate Action).
While Mr. Steyer was devising his political strategy, the staff at Next Generation, his nonprofit group, were at work trying to solve another critical question: How do you make climate change feel real and immediate for people?